Chris Paul has brought a level of excellence and relevance to the Los Angeles Clippers that the team has rarely experienced, if ever. What he couldn't bring, at least not in year one of the CP3 era, was a Pacific Division title.
The Clippers led the Pacific for more than two months, but gave up the lead to the Lakers on March 11. Since then, they've harbored hopes of overtaking their intracity rivals, and even managed to pull back into a tie in the final week of the season. However, with the Clippers' loss to the Atlanta Hawks Tuesday night, the chase is over, and the Clippers will remain without a Division title in franchise history for at least one more season.
Both the Clippers and the Hawks find themselves in similar circumstances. Currently holding the home-court advantage in a first round playoff matchup, but not yet assured of that advantage. Entering Tuesday's game, the two teams each held a one-game lead in the loss column over their first round playoff opponent (for the Clippers it's the Grizzlies, for the Hawks the Celtics). A Clippers win would have locked up the fourth seed, but the loss keeps Memphis alive in the race. And since the Celtics also won their game, these races will now come down to the last game of the season for all four teams.
In a star-driven league, the Clippers got huge games from their biggest stars. Blake Griffin scored a season-high 36 on 17-23 shooting, while Paul scored 34, two off his own season-high. The 70 combined points was the highest combined point total for the co-mayors of Lob City. But the Clippers were let down by their supporting cast, as well as by their defense, as no other Clipper finished in double figures, and they allowed the Hawks to shoot 50 percent from the field and make 11 threes.
Joe Johnson led Atlanta with 28 points, making 10-17 overall and 6-9 threes. In fact, the game was still in doubt with the Hawks up four and 37 seconds left when Johnson banked in his sixth three of the game from 30 feet out with the shot clock winding down and a defender draped all over him. It was that kind of night for Johnson. Atlanta's point guard Jeff Teague, the second best Demon Deacon point guard in the league, scored 21 against his fellow Wake Forest alum, and Josh Smith had 18 and 10 rebounds.
The loss negated a breakout game from Griffin, who made eight of his first nine field goals in the first quarter and scored in every way conceivable. He made his first four jump shots, made a tough reverse layup, hit jump hooks in the post and left Smith high and dry on a perfect up and under move for a dunk. Griffin is often criticized for not having a well-rounded offensive game, and while he still has work to do, it was evident from this game that he is improving steadily.
But the Clippers may have suffered a much more significant loss than the game Tuesday night. Late in the fourth quarter, Paul appeared to be bothered by his groin muscle. Indeed, after the game, sideline reporter Madelyn Burke tweeted "Chris Paul suffered mild left groin strain in Tuesday's loss to Hawks, questionable vs Knicks Wednesday." If Paul is in any way limited for the playoffs by the injury, the Clippers may have lost their first round series Tuesday.
Both the Hawks and the Clippers know what they have to do now -- they will secure home-court advantage with one more win (or with a loss from their opponent, but they'd be wise not to count on help). For the Clippers, they end their season Wednesday night with another difficult road game in New York, a task made all the more difficult if Paul sits out, as he probably will. The Hawks conclude their season at home against Dallas on Thursday in a game that is likely to mean a lot to the Mavericks as well.
For all of Tuesday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.