If Chris Paul’s MVP candidacy took a hit last week when the Los Angeles Clippers went 3-0 on the road in his absence and won their games by an average of 14.6 points per game, it is back on track now.
With the Clippers falling to the Phoenix Suns, 93-86, Thursday night they have now lost three straight games and two straight without Paul. Not only did the Clippers lose to a Suns team that was 14-28 and just made a controversial coaching change, but they looked absolutely lost in a game they needed to have to snap a two-game losing streak.
Anyone making an MVP argument for Paul should probably point out that the Clippers beat the Suns 103-77 in Phoenix last month with Paul running the show and lost to the Suns just one month later with Paul on the bench.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Blake Griffin suffered a sprained left ankle after stepping on Goran Dragic’s foot in the first quarter and never looked like himself after that. He finished with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds, but four Clippers attempted more shots than Griffin. He had only four attempts in the second half as the Clippers tried to close the game out after taking the lead in the fourth quarter, but he could never get going.
“I tried to get him some more,” Del Negro told Prime Ticket after the game. “He sprained his ankle pretty good in the first and was battling through it. He was limping a little bit in the first half but he’s a competitive guy and wanted to be out there. We settled a couple of times when we could have attacked. We didn’t attack the basket as much as I would like.”
The Clippers don’t want to make any excuses while Paul is out, and there’s certainly a chance he could be out for a week as he was the last time he sat out with a bruised right kneecap. But with the Clippers up by one with 7:45 left in the game, the Clippers sure could have used Paul or at least Chauncey Billups running the offense to close the game out. Eric Bledsoe is a great change-of-pace point guard and can give the Clippers a spark in the second and third quarters, but Del Negro likes to lean on Paul (and Billups when he’s healthy) early and late in games and it's not hard to see why.
“All that stuff changes with Chris or Chauncey out there,” Del Negro said. “There’s no excuse. We were in this game and whoever is out there I have confidence in and they got to make the plays.”
A growing trend without Paul in the lineup is the Clippers taking bad shots and shooting a low percentage. The Clippers shot just 39.8 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc against the Suns Thursday. The Clippers poor free throw shooting also continued as they hit just 16 of 26 attempts. The Clippers are never going to be a perfect free throw shooting team, but as long as Paul is out they cannot afford to miss 10 free throws a game in his absence.
“We missed 10 free throws but luckily they missed some free throws as well, which helped,” Del Negro said. “But it’s hard to win close games when you’re going to miss that many free throws.”