When L.A. Clippers guard Patrick Beverley was ejected from Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, for violently pushing Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul to the floor, there was still 5:49 left on the clock. But the outcomes, of both game and series, were already very much decided.
Up 26 points and leading three games to two, there was no doubt that the Suns would be moving on to their first NBA Finals in nearly 30 years (1992-93). The Clippers, meanwhile, though advancing further than ever before, would be heading home empty-handed for the 51st time in 51 years, unable to reverse the tide of a third consecutive 0-2 series deficit as they struggled to find consistency without All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard in a series impacted by questionable calls.
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For Beverley, the longest-tenured Clipper on the roster, the moment of defeat was just too much to handle.
“He just broke,” said Suns’ forward Jae Crowder, who had 19 points and was nearby when the incident occurred. “I think that’s basically what you saw. You saw a breaking point with one of their leaders in their locker room. And then that’s the greatest feeling to have, especially in the playoffs. Such a great feeling.”
Moments later, Paul agreed with Crowder’s assessment of how Beverley must’ve felt about losing the series: “Yeah. Yeah. It hurt. It stings. It stings.”
A Nothing Look Turns Into a Big Push
Though Paul appeared to give Beverley little more than a sideways glance as the two walked to their benches, it’s not difficult to fathom why Beverley might have taken out his frustrations on Paul anyway.
After missing the first two games of the series due to a positive COVID-19 test and playing far below his usual standards in Games 3, 4 and 5 (31.7% FG, 12.5% 3P), Paul decimated the Clippers in Game 6, scoring 41 points on 16-for-24 shooting and missing only one of his eight 3-point attempts. A 10-time All-NBA selection over 16 seasons, Paul did most of his damage over the final 24 minutes — having scored 27 of his 31 second-half points at the time of Beverley’s shove.
But perhaps it wasn’t just this game or the series that brought Beverley to his breaking point. He and Paul have a little bit of history. After all, it was Paul’s trade from the Clippers, after six years with the team, that brought Beverley and a handful of other Houston Rockets to L.A. in the first place. (Both Paul and Beverley, who spent his first five seasons in the league as a Rocket, had requested trades from their respective teams.) “I am not Chris Paul,” Beverley told reporters after the trade.
A trade is a trade, so it’s doubtful the swap had anything to do with it, but the point guards did have a couple run-ins prior to the shove. There was the Clippers-Suns game in early April when Beverley, who had just returned to action following a 12-game absence from knee soreness, was ejected after he threw a hockey check on Paul as he raced up the court.
And in Game 5, fighting through a screen, Beverley was assessed a Flagrant 1 foul for undercutting Paul on a three-point attempt. Though the announcers all agreed that the contact appeared to be unintentional, after the whistle Beverley flamboyantly mocked Paul for what he perceived as an overreaction, surely not endearing himself to the refs (or Suns fans) who reviewed the play and accessed the flagrant. A few games earlier, Beverley had inadvertantly broken Devin Booker’s nose while lunging for the ball.
Opposite Ends of the Reputation Spectrum
Of course, when it comes to reputations, Paul’s and Beverley’s couldn’t be any more opposite.
Beverley is frequently derided for what many view as borderline if not blatantly dirty plays, and his relentless trash talk and on-court antics rarely help his cause. Paul, on the other hand, is the president of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) and often held up by the league as an exemplary player and citizen.
A perfect example of how the two players are generally perceived happened last summer, as the league tried to finish the season inside the Orlando bubble amidst the global pandemic. In a players briefing on the financial ramifications of opting out of play, Beverley reportedly interrupted NBPA executive director Michelle Roberts, telling her “I pay your salary.” At which point, Chris Paul and Udonis Haslam intervened, telling Beverley that disrespect would not be tolerated.
Later, several players who were in the room conceded that Roberts and Beverley did have an exchange but disputed that Beverley ever said anything about paying her salary. And two days later, Beverley told reporters that he and Roberts had a “very interesting conversation” and that “whatever the dialogue was or whatever you guys think it is” the two were all good. In the end, Beverley was painted as a hothead while Paul was the chivalrous knight.
But Paul’s reputation amongst fellow NBA’ers is not as virtuous as the league might wish. Several players, including former teammates Nick Young and Glen “Big Baby” Davis, have spoken negatively about Paul’s poor locker room chemistry, and Beverley’s teammate, Rajon Rondo, who a couple years back Paul accused of spitting on him moments before the two exchanged blows, was clear with ESPN about what he thinks of Paul.
“Everyone wants to believe Chris Paul is a good guy. They don’t know he’s a horrible teammate,” said Rondo. “They don’t want to believe he’s capable of taunting and igniting an incident.”
Rightfully so, Beverley’s actions in Game 6 will do nothing to narrow the gap between his and Paul’s reputations, and Beverley is all but guaranteed to be suspended at the start of next season and receive a hefty fine. But Beverley nevertheless issued an apology to Paul via Twitter Thursday morning.
And while some will invariably view Beverley’s apology as empty and his blindside push as yet another dirty play from a dirty player, a more sympathetic analysis might draw a less harsh conslusion: That it was a serious lapse of judgment from an emotional player in an emotional moment, carrying with it the frustrations of a franchise that once again fell short.