LOS ANGELES – Chris Paul’s return to the Los Angeles Clippers lineup was supposed to be gradual.
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro wanted to monitor Paul’s minutes and not overexert his point guard after he had missed nearly two weeks with a strained left hamstring.
Paul, however, had seen this script play out far too many times down the stretch for the Clippers while he was in street clothes to do nothing about it now that he was back in uniform.
There was hardly a trace of a smile on Paul’s face after the Clippers beat the Memphis Grizzlies 98-91 on Thursday night. A win is certainly a win, but he wants the Clippers to get to a point where games that are blowouts in the first half don’t turn into nail-biters down the stretch.
Time and time again, Paul, who finished with 18 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds in 35 minutes, had watched the Clippers jump out to double-digit leads on teams and instead of building on the advantage and burying the team; they would lose the lead and eventually lose the game as they did against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
“When you have teams coming into your building and you’re up [16 points] and you give it up, that’s frustrating,” Paul said. “In this league if you put the pedal to the metal and sometimes they’ll lay down. You never know, they might have a back-to-back, the coach doesn’t want to rest them for the next game, but when you give that team life anything can happen.”
With Paul starting the game, the Clippers jumped out to an early 29-13 lead before Paul took a seat on the bench with 1:32 left in the first quarter for Ryan Gomes. Suddenly the 16-point advantage evaporated as the Grizzlies went on a 15-0 run to cut the lead to 29-28.
“Even when I’m not out there, you have to keep the energy,” Paul said. “It just means so much. Each game is a big game. No matter if it’s the Lakers or the Grizzlies. We have approach it like that because I feel we have the opportunity to do something special.”
As much as Paul would like to flip a switch and make his teammates understand the importance of closing out teams, the Clippers simply aren’t a deep enough teams to make up for the amazing drop in talent on the front line. While the Clippers may have the deepest backcourt in the league with Paul, Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams, Eric Bledsoe and Randy Foye, they are paper-thin down low.
The second-unit front line when Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler aren’t in the game consists of Reggie Evans, Solomon Jones, Brian Cook and Gomes. That’s simply not going to cut it for a team that has championship aspirations.
Until the Clippers trade one of their backcourt players for some frontcourt help, however, they will have to make do with Williams being the only consistent production they’re going to get off the bench and understand double-digit leads may evaporate quickly with the second team on the floor.
“Sooner or later, we’re going to learn, all of us as a team and it starts with me,” Paul said. “These opportunities can slip away from you like Minnesota and you have to build as many wins as possible.”
The win did give the Clippers sole possession of first place in the Pacific Division after losing to Lakers the previous night but Paul shook his head when he was relayed the good news. If the Clippers are to change their attitude they have to start by not looking at the standings in January.
“I wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t told me,” Paul said. “For me it’s about getting better. It’s necessarily where you are in the standings. It’s about how you’re playing. We don’t want to peak right now but we have to start playing better.”