When Chris Paul walked out of Staples Center last Saturday afternoon with a slight limp after bruising his right kneecap against the Orlando Magic, he wasn't sure how he would feel in the morning. He knew it would hurt, he just didn't know how bad and for how long.
Sure, the Clippers are deep, but there is no substitute for Paul, who is, or at least was, in the thick of the MVP conversation with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. You can't just take Paul out and expect the Clippers to be as good.
Well, that was before this week. The Clippers weren't just good with Paul sidelined during their three-game trip. They were really good. Actually, they were scary good.
The Clippers won their third straight game without Paul, beating the Minnesota Timberwolves 90-77 on Thursday night. Without Paul, the Clippers have won their past three games by an average of 14.6 points and are now 31-9 on the season. It's the best 40-game start in franchise history and the second-best record in the NBA.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Defense is key
There are many reasons why the Clippers were able to go 3-0 over the past three games without Paul, but perhaps the biggest reason has been the play of their defense. The Clippers held Minnesota to just 35.7 percent shooting from the field and 21.1 percent from beyond the arc. Minnesota's 77 points were also a season low for its team. In fact, during the Clippers' three-game trip they held Memphis and Minnesota to a season low in points.
"We just got stops defensively, both teams I felt like missed a lot of shots and it was a sloppy game," Blake Griffin said. "I know it was a sloppy game for us, but we got stops down the end. Stops lead to quick buckets and kind of get us going a little bit."
A Tribe Called Bench
The Clippers' depth many times this season has been a luxury. Their bench players have helped turn 10-point leads into 20-point advantages and have given the Clippers' starters the night off after three quarters. But with Paul out and Chauncey Billups still out indefinitely, the Clippers' second unit has been essential to their success. The bench scored half of the Clippers' 90 points as Jamal Crawford once again led the way, scoring 22 points after he had scored 30 points against Houston. Ronny Turiaf chipped in with a season-high 11 points and Matt Barnes added 10 points.
"I think it has been really good all season," Crawford said. "Guys have been hurt and out and other guys have stepped up no matter who it was. I think that it's a credit to our coaching staff keeping us prepared and our teammates being professionals and staying ready."
Griffin & Co.
Griffin has had to step up in the absence of Paul and he has. He scored a team-high 20 points and hit both of his free throw attempts. Griffin has actually made 14 of his past 17 free throws. Caron Butler added 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting but no other starter scored in double figures. Interestingly enough, the Clippers were able to pull away in the second half despite getting very little from their starting backcourt as Eric Bledsoe and Willie Green combined for just 10 points, three assists and five turnovers. It was actually a dreadful game for Bledsoe, his first bad outing as a starter, as he finished with just two points on 1-of-7 shooting and had four turnovers.
"Blake set the tone for us and our bench, Jamal, LO and his 12 rebounds and six assists did a great job against the zone for us," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We got Ronny to come off the bench and did a good job for us. Caron hit some shots for us and Matt did too."