Chris Paul Proving Invaluable for LA Clippers and Other Thursday NBA Takeaways

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 23, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 22:  Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers handles the ball against the San Antonio Spurs on December 22, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Chris Paul is valuable enough to the Los Angeles Clippers under normal circumstances, but his necessity skyrockets with Blake Griffin out of the lineup as the latter recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery.

No matter how well DeAndre Jordan, J.J. Redick and the hordes of role players perform, this team belongs to the point guard. 

That's what made this particular moment, coming midway through the third quarter of a 106-101 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, so terrifying: 

Per Dan Woike of the Orange County Register, Paul's injury was officially ruled a left hamstring strain, and he was deemed questionable to return. He never did, and the Clippers couldn't sustain the nine-point lead he'd helped earn before his exit. 

Los Angeles still won, but don't expect that trend to continue. 

Paul means everything to the Clippers. His defensive intensity has helped set the tone on the perimeter, and his constant probing on offense sparks one of the league's most dangerous outfits. Whether he's looking for his own shot or using his eyes and hesitation dribbles to open passing lanes, he's always generating easy opportunities. 

The difference in performance with and without him is nothing short of staggering: 

It gets worse. 

According to nbawowy.com, the Clippers' net rating plunges to minus-8.7 when both Paul and Griffin are missing. For the sake of comparison, the Philadelphia 76ers have the league's worst net rating, with opponents outscoring them by 7.9 points per 100 possessions. 

Harping on about Paul's value to the team may seem strange in the wake of Los Angeles' performance after his exit. But while there's no denying how well the supporting cast played for one game's portion, that level isn't sustainable. Small samples tend to promote fluky results. 

Earlier in the contest, it was already obvious just how much better he made the team.

During Paul's 23 minutes, the Clippers outscored San Antonio by six points, thanks in large part to his 19 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals on 6-of-11 shooting. He was able to create separation against any guard the Spurs threw at him, and his passing into tight spaces created so many beneficial situations for his teammates—most notably when Jordan converted one feed at the expense of Pau Gasol's dignity: 

This is nothing new. 

Paul is in the middle of yet another fantastic season: He entered the night averaging 17.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 9.7 assists and 2.2 steals while shooting 46.1 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from downtown, but even those numbers sell his value short.

Every advanced metric highlights his excellence. 

His 26.8 player efficiency rating is above his career average—no small feat when his lifetime mark sits No. 6 on the historic leaderboard. He trails only Russell Westbrook and Giannis Antetokounmpo in box plus/minus, and no qualified player has accumulated more win shares per 48 minutes.

No players boast superior marks in ESPN.com's real plus/minus; the margin between Paul and No. 2 Westbrook was as large as the gap between Westbrook and No. 14 Marc Gasol heading into the night. 

And, according to NBA Math, his total points added put him on pace to submit one of the best seasons of his illustrious career:

That's if he can stay healthy, of course. 

As of now, we have no idea how long his strained hamstring will keep him out. He could return within the week or sit out for a while, taking advantage of his team's lofty position in the Western Conference standings to let the malady heal fully. After all, this particular muscle has knocked him out of the lineup before, and hamstring injuries are notoriously slow to return to 100 percent. 

If that's the case, his absence may actually help build his MVP case. Though Westbrook and James Harden have emerged as the clear-cut front-runners for the league's most prestigious award, Paul should at least be a part of the conversation. He meets every part of the unofficial criteria: 

  • Stats? See above. 
  • Team success? After this win, the Clippers are 22-8 and trail only the Spurs and Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. 
  • Value to his team? Duh.
  • Narrative? It should mean a lot that he's spitting on the traditional career arc of a starting point guard and thriving as a 31-year-old. 

Paul was already building his case with 2.5 stellar quarters against the Spurs' stingy defense. Now, his team might make his value more clear if his absence is even remotely prolonged. 

       

Paul George's Declining Defense

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 20:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers looks on during a game against the New York Knicks on December 20, 2016 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

This wasn't the Indiana Pacers' worst defensive performance. They entered the night ranked No. 17 in points allowed per 100 possessions, and they held the Boston Celtics to "only" 109 points in a seven-point loss. 

The entire team is at fault for this season's defensive woes, partially because two of the Pacers' best stoppers departed in the offseason. Larry Bird pointed out as much in a recent interview with NBA.com's David Aldridge

"The disappointing thing is on the defensive end," the team president explained. "Giving up George Hill and letting [Ian] Mahinmi go, two of our better defenders, I knew we were going to struggle a little bit, but we've struggled more than I anticipated. And that's hurt us. We're not consistent."

Paul George is not exempt. This has been—rather easily—the worst defensive season of his career. As you can see below, many of the major metrics agree:

Aside from the injury-shortened 2014-15 campaign, he's never performed this poorly. And aside from his rookie season, he's never had a lesser impact on the team's defensive rating.

That was apparent yet again Thursday night—especially in the third quarter, when he let Avery Bradley torch him over and over. 

Letting Bradley get one blow-by would be acceptable. It's more troubling that George is consistently out of position and can't even muster the energy to go after a defensive rebound on the second play seen above.

The effort levels have to change. George is the clear-cut leader of this team, and thriving on offense alone won't help pull the Pacers out of their season-long defensive slumber.  

      

No Lead Is Safe Against Golden State

The Golden State Warriors' first half was a disaster. Without Draymond Greenwho'd flown back to the Bay Area for the birth of his sonthe defense failed to communicate or protect the interior, allowing the Brooklyn Nets to throw up an impressive 65 points. Meanwhile, the Dubs went cold and could only generate enough offense to enter halftime trailing by 16.

But Brooklyn's lead wouldn't last long. 

A motivated Golden State unit exited the locker room and opened the second half with a non-dunk throwdown and-1 from Kevin Durant. With just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter, it took the lead on a Klay Thompson triple—a cushion it wouldn't relinquish in the 117-101 victory. 

This is exactly what makes the Warriors so dangerous: They're so explosive that a cursory glance at the box score would offer no indication they ever struggled.

Sure, Stephen Curry had trouble finding his shooting stroke, but he finished with 15 points, seven assists and five steals. He even used his mouthpiece as a decoy (yes, we're going to pretend that was intentional):

Thompson knocked down five triples, and Durant had yet another well-rounded line—26 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals. 

Even without Green, they won a half by 32 points. And when you turn a 16-point halftime deficit into a fourth-quarter blowout while on the road, the rest of the NBA should start quaking as it awaits a more inspired performance at full strength. 

The upcoming Christmas Day showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers should be excellent. 

       

Oh Hey, New York Bench

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 22:  Brandon Jennings #3, Mindaugas Kuzminskas #91 and Kyle O'Quinn #9 of the New York Knicks celebrate a basket against the Orlando Magic at Madison Square Garden on December 22, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Derrick Rose deserves credit for his performance during the New York Knicks' 106-95 victory over the Orlando Magic. So do Kristaps Porzingis and Courtney Lee for their all-around abilities. 

But this win was about the New York bench, which entered the night ranked No. 12 in offensive efficiency and No. 7 in defensive efficiency, per Hoopsstats.com. Finding the biggest standout is a difficult proposition. 

Was it Brandon Jennings? The backup point guard used his energy to become a hounding defensive presence and mitigated the ill effects of his poor shooting via 12 assists. He joins Elfrid Payton as one of just two men to record a dozen dimes off the pine in 2016-17. 

Was it Willy Hernangomez, who was on the receiving end of that beautiful feed? Fifteen points and five rebounds is nothing to sniff at, particularly when they come on a 7-of-11 shooting performance. 

How about Kyle O'Quinn? The big man exploded for 14 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks, becoming the 11th player to piece together that line off the bench since 1983. No one had done so while playing fewer than 33 minutes, and O'Quinn logged just 24.

Plus, as Vice Sports' Joseph Flynn pointed out, he also played quality defense against Nikola Vucevic: 

All of a sudden, the Knicks are three games above .500. And even while Carmelo Anthony, Porzingis and Rose steal the headlines, the bench has been crucial to the success. 

With each passing game, New York continues to prove its legitimacy in different ways.

       

Justise Winslow's Career Night

The sophomore small forward has not exactly thrived on offense this year, averaging 10.9 points and 3.4 assists while shooting 35.0 percent from the field, 22.6 percent from downtown and 61.8 percent from the charity stripe. As Bleacher Report's Andrew Bailey noted, this put him in unique territory: 

That wasn't apparent during the Miami Heat's 115-107 win against the Los Angeles Lakers.

After a miserable start—they opened with six straight misses and coughed up the ball three times in just over four minutes—they stormed back to erase a 19-point deficit. Winslow was a huge factor. 

He finished with a career-high 23 points and had 13 rebounds, three assists and four steals, knocking down 10 of his 16 shots from the field. And while there were a few ugly misses, it had to be encouraging for Miami to see him connecting on jumpers late in the second half: 

Winslow was widely viewed as an offensive work in progress when he entered the NBA, drafted more because of his defensive ability and eventual two-way upside than his immediate scoring prowess. But that progress has been hard to find during his first two seasons, featuring way too many bricks and awful shooting lines. 

If this is the first sign of substantial improvement for the 20-year-old, his career arc could suddenly look far different. And with this win pushing Miami to just 10-20 on the year, head coach Erik Spoelstra may as well let him keep firing away. 

       

Thursday's Final Scores

  • Boston Celtics 109, Indiana Pacers 102
  • Golden State Warriors 117, Brooklyn Nets 101
  • New York Knicks 106, Orlando Magic 95
  • Miami Heat 115, Los Angeles Lakers 107
  • Los Angeles Clippers 106, San Antonio Spurs 101

        

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball-Reference.comNBA.com or NBA Math and accurate heading into games on Dec. 22. 

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