By Jahmal Corner
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Chris Paul drove right, stumbled forward, leaned back and banked in a game-winning shot that lifted the Los Angeles Clippers to a crucial playoff win on Monday and elevated his status as one of the game's top closers.
While Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron James are often noted as fourth-quarter assassins, it is the diminutive six-foot (1.83m) Paul who provided the signature moment of the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs thus far.
Paul's last-second jumper gave the Clippers a 93-91 victory and a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series with the Memphis Grizzlies that left the home crowd buzzing.
"He's so stubborn and strong-willed. There's not too many players like that," Clippers forward Lamar Odom told Reuters, likening Paul's clutch play to former team mate Bryant.
"It's all about their mentality. He just didn't take no for an answer."
Paul finished with 24 points and nine assists, and got the final say in a duel with Grizzlies guard Mike Conley, who had a playoff-career-high 28 points and nine rebounds, but it was the timing of his points that made all the difference.
As Los Angeles let a 12-point advantage slip away in the fourth quarter, Paul scored the last eight points for his team in what has become a familiar occurrence for the Clippers.
Blake Griffin's scene-stealing athleticism is the high point of a deep and exciting roster, but when it comes to the last 12 minutes of a close game the offense begins and ends with point guard Paul.
"Any time we get in those positions, he's our closer and we look for him to close games out," said Clippers guard Chauncey Billups, nicknamed 'Mr. Big Shot' for his own ability to make crucial buckets during his career.
"All great players are not clutch. Chris has proved to be one of the best clutch players in the NBA."
It is that intangible of Paul's that has resuscitated the Clippers franchise and helped them steal some billing from the crosstown rival Lakers.
When the Clippers traded for the All Star guard prior to the 2011-12 NBA season they were looking to reverse a painful history of losing.
Paul quickly cured that with his fierce competitiveness and fearlessness in the closing stages of games. The Clippers beat the Grizzlies to reach the second round of the playoffs last year and captured a maiden Pacific Division crown this season.
"I don't think it's that dramatic," said Paul, of the big moment. "It's just basketball."
It certainly felt that dramatic to everyone else Monday when Paul blew past Memphis defender Tony Allen, lofted a shot over Darrell Arthur and raised his reputation to yet a new height.
Even opponent Conley felt the weight of the play.
"That's what great players do," Conley said. "We did our best to defend him. He just hit a tough shot."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)