Chris Paul enjoyed plenty of success during six straight playoff trips with the Los Angeles Clippers, but he was on the other bench and the losing end of a tension-filled battle in Staples Center on Monday that will be remembered for more than the basketball.
Behind impressive performances from Blake Griffin (29 points, 10 rebounds and six assists) and Lou Williams (31 points and nine assists), the Clippers prevailed against Paul's Houston Rockets, 113-102, pushing their winning streak to five and moving into a tie with the Denver Nuggets for the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in the Western Conference in the process.
Paul finished with 19 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game against Los Angeles since it traded him, but he couldn't provide enough firepower to overcome the absence of James Harden, who was out with a hamstring injury.
However, there were apparently some fireworks after the game, according to Ashley Brewer of ABC Los Angeles and sports reporter Delmy Barillas:
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, "Houston Rockets' players James Harden, Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green pushed into Clippers locker room post-game looking to confront Austin Rivers, league sources tell ESPN. Security escorted Rockets out before anything turned physical." There was "yelling and shoving," according to Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports.
Wojnarowski added that "Rockets players were clamoring for Blake Griffin too" and Paul entered the Clippers locker room with other players through the backdoor:
Ariza was ejected during the game for yelling at Rivers and the Clippers bench. Griffin was also ejected when he came over and became involved in the situation.
In terms of the actual basketball, Paul has seamlessly stepped into the role of primary option since Harden's injury and averaged 26.0 points, 9.6 assists and 7.4 rebounds a night in the previous five games while helping the Rockets tread water in the race for a No. 1 seed without their MVP candidate.
It's not much of a surprise considering he is a nine-time All-Star, eight-time member of an All-NBA team and nine-time member of an All-Defensive team as one of the best point guards of his generation, and the Clippers paid homage to his individual brilliance with a video tribute:
Nostalgia turned into hostility after the ball was tipped, especially when Paul appeared to have some choice language for Griffin:
The tension didn't dissipate in the fourth quarter when Griffin's and-1 over Paul on the blocks prompted jawing between the two teams, including Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni.
The back-and-forth was notable given Paul's place in recent Clippers history, but he also demonstrated some of his memorable skill during the action by consistently making Milos Teodosic look helpless in the open court:
He spearheaded a balanced attack for the visitors, with all five starters scoring in double figures, including 19 points from Eric Gordon and 17 from Ariza, but it didn't match the effort from a shorthanded Clippers team playing without DeAndre Jordan, Danilo Gallinari, Austin Rivers and Patrick Beverley.
According to Lawrence Murray of ESPN.com, Jordan missed a game with injury for the first time in his career Saturday because of a sprained ankle, meaning others had to shoulder the load alongside Griffin.
Wesley Johnson played the role of rim protector with the big man absent, as NBA on TNT showed:
It was Williams who bolstered his case for a spot in the All-Star Game with a dominant performance. He scored 16 points in the first half and then served as a go-to option for stretches in the fourth quarter with the game hanging in the balance.
He drilled four shots from beyond the arc, forcing Houston's wings to push up and opening driving lanes down the stretch. It wasn't just Williams who opened the looks, as Teodosic connected on four triples as well.
Williams wasn't alone in taking advantage of the openings in the lane, considering Griffin poured in 13 points in the third quarter alone as Los Angeles seized control. Houston didn't have a consistent answer for him in the post, and he responded with his highest-scoring output since he tallied 33 points on Nov. 25 against the Sacramento Kings.
Griffin and Co. will look to extend their winning streak Wednesday against the Denver Nuggets, while Paul's Rockets turn their attention to a Thursday matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves.