A subtle change in Chris Paul's game has pushed the Clippers to the top

USA TODAY Sports

Chris Paul's brilliant performance against the Lakers offered two reminders: he's playing like the best player in Los Angeles, and he's doing it in a different way than ever before.

A few weeks ago, ESPN's studio crew, particularly Magic Johnson, wondered aloud whether the Los Angeles Clippers could grind out tough games late when things got tight. These are the kinds of discussions we're still prone to hearing about any team that is successful and likes to run, and as infuriating as they may seem, they're just part of what we sometimes have to do to fill space.

But if you're a Clippers fan, the topic should be like music to your ears. At the end of the day, this was a discussion about a team that employs Chris Paul as their best player. If the issue with Chris Paul's team is half-court execution, then his team is sitting pretty.

Friday's second Battle of Los Angeles against the crosstown rival Lakers offered a reminder that you're rarely going to find better half-court players than Paul. The reason the Clippers surged to big leads was because of their high-flying, transition game, but the reason they kept holding off Lakers comeback efforts was because of Paul. The execution wavered a bit at the end, but whenever the Clippers needed a big hoop or big play, there was Paul to make it. When the game got tight, the superstar stepped up.

Consider the following sequences:

  • When a Steve Nash three-pointer cut the Clippers' lead to 50-46 late in the first half, Paul assisted on two Blake Griffin dunks, the second of which was a transition opportunity he manufactured out of nothing. Then, he drove, made Kobe Bryant fly by and nailed a pull-up 14-footer to push the lead back to 11.
  • When the Lakers scored the first seven points of the third quarter to cut the Clippers' lead to three, Paul called his own number out of a timeout, rubbed Metta World Peace right into a Griffin screen and pulled up to hit the 15-footer. Run averted.
  • Finally, when things got really tight late after the Lakers' furious rally, Paul drove and drew the sixth foul on Dwight Howard, hit two free throws, then sealed the game with a stepback 18-footer over Kobe Bryant.

The Clippers didn't win the game with these three sequences, and in fairness, Paul's own misses on previous possessions caused part of the third to occur. But because of Paul's response, they never lost control of the game. That's the very definition of the shortcoming the ESPN studio crew suggested the Clippers had.

But in fairness to the ESPN crew, this has been a slightly different Chris Paul than we're used to seeing.

Long a point guard who maintained an incredibly tight control on his team's pace, Paul has loosened the reigns this year and started galloping up the floor to meet his athletic teammates. The Clippers were 27th in possessions per game last year; now they're 12th. Twelve percent of their possessions were classified as "transition" plays by MySynergySports.com last year; 15.3 percent have been in 2012-13.

Much of that is their warp-speed bench, led by Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes, but some of it is also Paul himself. He's getting the ball up to other guys with the pass more often, allowing players like Griffin, Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford and Lamar Odom to advance the ball. More significantly, he's racking up more dimes in the open floor than he did in his first year in Los Angeles. A tracking analysis on MySynergySports.com revealed that over 26 percent of Paul's assists this season have come in transition situations, up from 17 percent last year. Paul's pushing the ball more, getting his athletic teammates easy looks in their comfort zone and occasionally ceding half-court shot creation responsibilities.

By doing less, Paul is doing more, and that can therefore confuse people. The ESPN studio crew may think that Paul is no longer capable of taking over games in halfcourt situations like he used to for the Hornets and early in his Clippers career. In reality, Paul is putting himself in a situation where he doesn't have to. He gets more out of the athletic, deep roster he's been gifted, while saving the old grind-it-out Paul for when he really needs it, like those few possessions Friday night against the Lakers.

That's the secret to how the Clippers have become L.A.'s best team. Despite Kobe Bryant's incredible season, Chris Paul is still the best player in L.A. He's just doing it differently than you're used to seeing.

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