Losing a player of Chris Paul’s caliber—even for a game or two—is bound to feel like a major inconvenience.
Eighteen games? The Los Angeles Clippers were merely expected to batten down the basketball hatches—survive and stave, stave and survive.
Luckily, the Clips weathered the storm better than many believed possible, stringing together a 12-6 record minus their fiery floor general, who had been sidelined since January 4 with a right shoulder injury.
Paul returned to action Sunday night, sparking the Clippers to a 123-78 throttling of the overmatched Philadelphia 76ers in front of a relieved Staples Center crowd.
How did he do? We evaluated Paul’s performance along four specific criteria, from which we extracted a final grade.
Athleticism / Stamina:
Doc Rivers yanked Paul halfway through the first quarter—understandable and expected, given the latter’s extended absence.
Paul would return early in the second, however, playing the remainder of the half and helping the Clips amass a…Well, we’ll get to that.
After starting the second half, Paul departed at the 4:44 mark of the third quarter, the game comfortably in hand—winded, but not totally gassed.
On the whole, L.A.'s floor general looked about as fluid and fresh as could’ve been reasonably expected. Although he’ll probably be the first to tell you how much he enjoyed the garbage-time rest.
Skills / Offensive Sharpness:
On his first touch, Paul zipped a savvy entry pass to a block-bound Blake Griffin, who wheeled his way to the paint for an easy deuce. Moments later, Paul hit a streaking Matt Barnes perfectly in stride for a fast-break dunk.
His first shot: a pretty pull-up 15-footer—nothing but net.
Not a bad start.
On one possession toward the end of the first half, Paul juked and jived his way into the lane, found a wide-open Jamal Crawford—who missed from distance—and snagged an offensive rebound. All in about four seconds.
Paul opened the second half on much the same note, threading a pair of gorgeous dimes to Griffin early in the third frame, bulldozing his way to a tough coast-to-coast lay-in and helping extend the Clipper lead to just shy of 60.
As in six, zero.
What made Paul’s performance all the more impressive was who checked him: Michael Carter-Williams, the rangy, hyper-athletic 6’6” rookie who has already earned a reputation for terrorizing opposing point guards.
The only pock: Four turnovers in 23 minutes.
By the time Paul left the game in the first quarter, the Clippers had amassed a 23-point lead. At the end of the first, the score was 46-15.
I think they’re happy to have him back?
Blake Griffin certainly was.
Oh my, how we all missed that. It’s great to see Lob City back in…. Oh no, not again.
At that point, I was legitimately surprised the Sixers didn’t just pack up their bags and flee the premises immediately.
Throughout the night, there was a potent, palpable pep to the Clippers’ step—the adrenaline-fueled enthusiasm of a team amped to have its leader back.
In a halftime interview with Fox Sports West’s Kristina Pink, Jamal Crawford summed it up thusly:
Obviously having CP back helps. It’s tremendous having the NBA’s best point guard back on the squad… He’s the leader—a natural-born leader. He puts everyone in the right positions, gets everyone easy shots, feeds off the energy of the crowd.
The sheer dearth of floor time, coupled with the blowout nature of the game itself, makes it hard to gauge exactly how in-sync the full-strength Clippers really were.
Doesn’t matter. Consider those videos extra credit.
Not a whole lot of note on this front, save for a few highlights: a quartet of steals—one of which came off a clever chair-pull on a driving Carter-Williams—and a near-fifth along the baseline following an L.A. basket early in the first.
For a guy still ostensibly getting his wind back, Paul sure looked pretty engaged. The positioning and rotations weren’t always perfect, but when your team builds that big of a lead that early, taking a play or two off isn’t an issue so much as a necessary byproduct.
Final Grade: B+
Whether the Clippers can emerge as genuine contenders in the Western Conference hinges on a number of factors—offensive flow and consistent interior defense being at or near the top of the list. But it all becomes moot without a healthy Chris Paul keeping Lob City alight.
Sunday’s performance was merely the prelude to what Clippers fans hope is a notice-serving stretch of the season. And while their point guard didn’t look quite the perennial All-Star we’ve come to expect, the Clippers can take comfort in knowing that, when it comes to the position’s pantheon, Chris Paul’s rust is as good as just about anyone else's luster.