The Los Angeles Clippers came into Saturday's game against the Houston Rockets with a decided advantage. Though the Rockets were playing at home, they were missing two of their starters: point guard Patrick Beverley and center Dwight Howard.
But the tide of fortune can turn quickly in the NBA. Not only did the short-handed Rockets blitz the Clippers en route to a 33-23 first-quarter lead, but Los Angeles suffered a cruel blow when star forward Blake Griffin left the game with back spasms after only six minutes.
The Clippers' frontcourt suffered another (self-imposed) loss when head coach Doc Rivers laid down the law on reserve forward Glen Davis. With 10:21 remaining in the second quarter, Rivers removed Davis from the game, and the tempestuous big man engaged in a heated verbal exchange with the coach. Despite the fact that he was already down one big, Rivers did not hesitate to order team security to escort Davis back to the locker room, per ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi.
Down by double digits, and with half of their big men in the locker room, the Clippers needed to turn to their backcourt to get back into the game. Fortunately, they were not exactly thin in that area. Los Angeles still has the greatest point guard in the game in Chris Paul.
The seven-time All-Star may have flown under the radar a bit this season after suffering a shoulder injury which cost him a month and paved the way for Griffin's emergence to the ranks of the truly elite. But when Griffin went down, Paul did not hesitate to show the basketball world that he is still the most valuable player on his own team.
Paul dragged his team back into the game nearly single-handedly with a powerhouse second-quarter performance: 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting (3-of-5 from beyond the arc), four assists, two rebounds, two steals and zero turnovers.
After trailing by as many as 15 points in the second quarter, the Clippers went on a 34-18 run and took a 61-58 halftime lead en route to a convincing 118-107 victory. Paul's heroics helped Los Angeles clinch their third consecutive playoff berth...and a little bit of Clippers history, per their official Twitter account:
Small Ball and Clutch Free Throws
Doc Rivers needed a change in strategy. The absence of Griffin severely curtailed the team's ability to score inside. The Rockets may have been without Howard, but they still had a quality interior defender in Omer Asik.
With the paint closed off, the Clippers turned to the three-point line for their offense. Los Angeles shot a season-high 41 three-pointers in the game—three more than the team's previous high on Nov. 4 (coincidentally enough, against Houston).
Sure, the Clippers didn't shoot particularly well from beyond the arc—shooting just 29.3 percent—but what they lacked in quality, they made up for in quantity. Los Angeles outscored Houston 36-21 from three-point land.
Eight of the Clippers' 12 threes came from Paul (5-of-9) and Jamal Crawford (3-of-9). Los Angeles relied on Crawford to pick up the scoring slack when Paul went to the bench, and the shooting guard responded with 14 second-half points to keep the Rockets at bay.
But the Clippers couldn't have won the game with the backcourt alone. Down six points with five minutes remaining, Rockets coach Kevin McHale turned to a seemingly prudent strategy: fouling DeAndre Jordan every time down the court.
Jordan had struggled at the line up to that moment, making just one of his free throws. But the big man stepped up with the game on the line, sinking his first two and five of his final eight from the charity stripe. Those made free throws dissuaded McHale from fouling him every time down the court, and the Clippers were able to stretch their lead back into double digits.
Jordan truly stepped up his game in the absence of his frontcourt partner, scoring 20 points to go with 12 rebounds and six blocks. But the real star of the game was Paul, who scored a team-high 30 points and dished 12 assists against only one turnover. It was a magnificent performance from a magnificent player.
Playing for the Postseason
After the game, Jordan tried to downplay the accomplishment of simply clinching a playoff berth, per the Associated Press (via ESPN):
"It's another goal that's accomplished. It's definitely not the only thing we want to accomplish this season, but it's a start. Now we've just got to keep building and win as many games as possible and hit our stride when they playoffs start."
But this was no run-of-the-mill regular-season victory; beating the Rockets held major playoff implications.
Los Angeles came into Saturday one game up on Houston but tied in the all-important loss column. Now, the Clippers are two games up in the race for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
With the playoffs fast approaching, the spotlight now turns to the health of Griffin. Per the Orange County Register's Dan Woike, Rivers would like L.A.'s medical staff to play it safe with his star forward:
And it's hard to blame Rivers for such caution. After all, the Clippers probably aren't going anywhere in the playoffs without a healthy Griffin.
Prior to this game, Griffin had received serious credit for keeping the Clippers competitive despite the midseason injury to Paul and the continuing absence of shooting guard J.J. Redick. In fact, Bleacher Report's Fred Katz believes the Clipper forward deserves a third-place finish in this season's MVP award race, behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James:
The types of shots Griffin gets are just so practical, such high-percentage looks, that they help him become one of the most efficient players in the NBA. Add in everything else—the passing, the athleticism, the rebounding, the improved defense—and [Chicago Bulls center Joakim] Noah's Defensive Player of the Year case doesn't close the gap enough to overtake the Clippers forward.
Blake Griffin has been the third-best player in the NBA during this season, and here's the scary part: He's only going to get better.
Yes, Griffin is an incredible player. And he will continue to improve, perhaps to the point where he will truly supplant Paul as the team's best player. But that day has not yet arrived.
The Clippers are still Chris Paul's team. The ease with which CP3 took the reins and delivered the victory in Griffin's absence on Saturday is all the evidence necessary.