Chris Paul looked awfully emotional when he left Monday night’s win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, kicking a chair as he left the court and yelling as he made his way back to the locker room. At first, it seemed the outburst might have been a bit premature. Now, though, we might know why the All-Star point guard blew his top in a manner similar to his exit from Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference playoffs last April; maybe he had a feeling that, as was the case then, he was going to be on the shelf for a while.
Paul, who will undergo surgery Wednesday, left Monday’s game against the Thunder with a sprained left thumb and didn’t return. Initial X-rays showed no break, but further tests Tuesday morning revealed the tear, which occurred after Paul jammed his left hand on Russell Westbrook’s right leg in the second quarter.
Paul went around a Joffrey Lauvergne screen while chasing Westbrook, who jumped into Paul while attempting to draw a foul on a 3-point attempt. Immediately after the play, a frustrated Paul walked straight to the locker room with head athletic trainer Jasen Powell.
“That’s the one injury we get,” Rivers said Monday night. “You know the pain. I’m sure CP was thinking the worst at the time. He’s already got pretty good news with the normal X-ray being negative. You’ve just got to hope for the best.”
What they got instead falls far, far short of “the best” — life without one of the game’s best point guards for somewhere between 17 and 25 games. That promises to be a fairly unpleasant life for the Clippers, who enter Tuesday’s play at 29-14, just two games ahead of the Utah Jazz in the hunt for the No. 4 seed — and home-court advantage — in the Western Conference playoff race.
Making matters worse: the Clips’ upcoming slate during the timeframe of Paul’s expected absence includes a pair of five-game road trips, highlighted by tough road contests against the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Jazz, plus Staples Center visits from the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. If Rivers can’t keep his crew on solid ground without its foreman, L.A. could soon find itself slipping not only out of the top half of the Western bracket, but all the way down to its lower reaches. The Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies and Thunder, who are tied for the sixth and seventh slots right now, are just four games behind the Clippers, and could be poised to seize the opportunity presented by Paul’s injury. (Barring something catastrophic happening, it’s just about impossible to imagine L.A. falling out of the top eight entirely, given that the West’s final playoff spot is currently held by the 18-25 Portland Trail Blazers.)
As our Eric Freeman noted on Monday, the Clippers simply don’t have another tablesetter who can “reasonably approximate Paul’s impact on both ends of the floor,” even if playmaking power forward Blake Griffin — sidelined since Dec. 19 after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee — returns to the lineup soon.
That’s not to say that getting Griffin back in the fold to act as a from-the-elbows offensive initiator and ostensible point forward wouldn’t help soften the blow. When CP3 missed just over a month with a shoulder sprain during the 2013-14 season, Griffin stepped into the void and played some of the best basketball of his career, averaging 27.5 points on 55.4 percent shooting to go with 8.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 1.4 steals in 35.6 minutes per game over an 18-game stretch, during which L.A. went 12-6.
The January 2014 version of Griffin wasn’t coming off knee surgery, though. While Rivers said Monday that Griffin “looks like he’s explosive again” as he works on his rehabilitation, according to Dan Woike of the Orange County Register, and he “is planning on traveling with the team on the upcoming three-game trip that begins Saturday” against the Denver Nuggets, Griffin has yet to be cleared for contact, and hasn’t played in a game in nearly a month. Expecting him to step right in and pick up where CP3 left off seems an awfully big ask — and perhaps flat-out unrealistic, because there’s just no substitute for what the nine-time All-Star brings to the Clippers.
While the crooked numbers thrown up by several other stars at his position this season — Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double, James Harden returning to MVP-caliber work, Isaiah Thomas becoming a fourth-quarter supernova, et al. — have drawn more attention and headlines, Paul has done what he always does. Namely: execute efficiently and ruthlessly, night in and night out, at a level few in NBA history have ever reached.
Paul sits tied with John Wall for the league lead in steals per game at 2.2, and ranks fourth in assists per game, with 9.7 dimes a contest. He’s assisting on 50.1 percent of his teammates’ buckets during his time on the floor, the third-best mark in the league, and ranks fourth behind only Harden, Wall and Westbrook in points created by direct assist.
He’s one of the league’s most efficient pull-up shooters, isolation scorers, and high-volume pick-and-roll ball-handlers. He rarely gets chances to catch-and-shoot, since he’s just about always on the ball, but when he does, he shoots it about as accurately as Klay Thompson. Which is, y’know, very good.
Only six players in the league average more touches per game than the Clippers’ floor general; only six have the ball in their hands for a larger share of the game. When CP3 is on the floor, he controls damn near everything about L.A.’s offense, and that has tended to be a pretty good deal for Doc.
The Clippers have torched opposing defenses at a rate of offensive efficiency higher than even the league-best Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors with Paul on the court to run the show this season, and have managed a mark that would barely edge the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns for 20th in a 30-team league when he sits. Factor in the defensive drop-off that comes with moving an eight-time All-Defensive Team selection (six of those being First Team nods) to the pine, and the Clippers have been a staggering 20.8 points-per-100 better with Paul on the floor than off it in the 2016-17 season.
Check out your advanced metric of choice — Player Efficiency Rating, Real Plus-Minus, Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus, Value Over Replacement Player, etc. — and nearly every last one of them’s going to tell you that CP3’s been one of the, say, five to seven best performers in the NBA this season. With all due respect to backups Raymond Felton and Austin Rivers, who have performed well in their roles as secondary facilitators this season, there’s a reason the Clips went 2-5 in the games Paul missed with a hamstring strain earlier this season, and why, as Woike noted Tuesday, they’ve won 70 percent of their games with Paul and lost 70 percent of their games without him over the past two seasons; you just don’t replace that.
Utah’s dealt with more than its share of injuries in the first half of the season. Houston had to reconfigure its frontcourt rotation when Clint Capela broke his leg. Memphis lost Mike Conley for a spell, and Chandler Parsons for half the season. Life in the NBA is brutal; nobody’s going to feel sorry for the Clippers. [/restrict]