Kids instinctively can tell who is in charge. That's why the gang of adolescent boys roaming the Los Angeles Clippers locker room Monday night greeted seven-foot DeAndre Jordan as if he were a peer and gathered around Chris Paul, who, seated in front of his locker, was nearly at eye level with them, as if he were their grandfather or an emperor. Or, perhaps, a grandfatherly emperor.
The boys, all sons of Clippers players or personnel, regaled Paul with stories of who dunked upon whom on the kids' hoop in the family room while the Clippers were doing the same to the Warriors.
Paul listened intently, then told one of the biggest kids, "Do me a favor: Dunk on him!" pointing to his four-year-old son, Chris Jr., who looked up at his dad in silent wonder. "Don't let him off the hook."
If that sounds harsh (or, at the very least, like tough love), it's mild compared to Paul's demeanor on the Staples Center court earlier in the evening. The Clippers never trailed or led by less than 20 in the second half on their way to tying their first-round best-of-seven series with the Warriors at 1-1, but anyone simply watching and listening to Paul never would have gotten that impression.
Well into the second half, Paul was screaming insults at the Warriors bench. After scoring on Steph Curry in the third quarter, he walked away shouting loudly about the failings of the Warriors defense.
Needless to say, it did not sit well with the Warriors and offers a sub-plot to Thursday's pivotal Game 3 at Oracle Arena. While they have made their feelings publicly clear about Blake Griffin—Klay Thompson labeling him a flopper and Curry throwing his mouthguard in anger after Griffin collided with him—the Warriors privately consider Paul just as disingenuous in how physically aggressive he can play while acting as if he is the one being bullied.
Then there is the Paul at the postgame podium, doe-eyed and soft spoken, feigning ignorance to the many statistical benchmarks he has surpassed when those who have played with him insist he is acutely aware of his box-score totals at any given time.
The point being, Chris Paul does indeed have an alter ego, as his insurance commercials suggest, but it's not Cliff Paul, his similarly thoughtful and kind imaginary twin. Think more Jack the Ripper or Hannibal Lecter.
The other point being, there's nothing wrong with Paul being a fierce competitor or shooting every angle to get a competitive advantage. In a league far too full of frenemies and far too short on genuinely fierce competitors, Paul's attitude is a welcome relief. It's the pretending of complete innocence for some reason—the State Farm checks alone might be enough of one—that is a little off-putting.
All of which makes the Clippers one of the most aggravating teams in the league for opponents. The sub-plot in this series is that the Warriors are not that far behind them. David Lee is not a flopper on par with Griffin, but he has more than his fair share of aggrieved conversations with the officials whenever he fails to get a whistle. And asked about the league's premier floppers earlier this season, Suns forward Channing Frye had both Paul and Curry on his list.
The fury with which Curry attacked the Clippers in the third quarter—scoring 20 of his 24 points in the period, 14 at the rim—and bouncing his mouthguard off the scorer's table would suggest that he's adopting Paul's meaner persona as well. It's hard to picture Curry ever blistering referees as often or heatedly as Paul does, but demanding respect will be vital for his, and the Warriors', evolution this postseason and beyond, especially against the Clippers.
The history of bad blood and physical altercations, and the league's oversized fear of another Malice at the Palace erupting, puts the referees in the unenviable position of determining which team will have the advantage at any given time.
As for just how much Curry adopts Paul's persona, that may take a while to truly discern. With his daughter Riley only being two, he's still a couple of years away from imploring her friends to posterize her.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.
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