In Portland a few nights after Christmas, LeBron James spent the evening in a camo tee, brown leather pants and a tan jacket. On the floor, his teammates beat a hot Trail Blazers team on a late 3-pointer by Chris Bosh. The Heat got some nice minutes from Michael Beasley, Ray Allen, Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis on a night that wasn’t Dwyane Wade’s most efficient.
About a half hour after the game, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was more animated than usual. It was a big win, he explained, because it was important for James to see the team succeed in his absence. It’s not that James isn't trusting of his teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story -- but it’s common for a superstar to feel as if his team’s fortunes rest on his shoulders, and James certainly falls into the category.
So does Chris Paul. Like James, much of Paul’s game is predicated on trusting teammates -- one glimpse at his career assist numbers tells that story too. And like James, Paul is obsessive about playing. CP is the ultimate control freak, but how in the name of the holy point god is he supposed to exert that control when he’s not dressed for the game? It’s not that he doesn't think the world of his teammates, but when Paul’s body doesn't allow him to take the court, he develops a nervous energy.
“He talks more, if that’s possible,” Doc Rivers said Saturday before the Clippers beat the Jazz. “He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road swing]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.’”
Everything's fine, Chris. The team is 11-5 since you went down with a separated AC joint in your right shoulder Jan. 3. Since that night, the Clippers own the most efficient offense in the NBA, scoring a fat 111.7 points per 100 possessions. Blake Griffin is playing out of his mind. Paul’s understudy, Darren Collison, has an effective true shooting percentage of 63 percent as the starter and an offensive rating of 113 points per 100 possessions. The Clips are getting serious offensive production from Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick. A disappointment the first third of the season, Jared Dudley is playing his best basketball as a Clipper and leading the team in net rating during the stint without Paul.
The only regular who has been struggling profoundly over the past month is Matt Barnes, who has been trudging his way back from an eye injury. And if not for a wild, off-balance Randy Foye 3-pointer at the buzzer Monday night in Denver, the Clippers would have logged another feel-good moment with a clutch win on the road in their final possession courtesy of a 3-pointer from Barnes. DeAndre Jordan even hit a couple of big free throws to tie the game inside of two minutes. The Clips nailed the process, but results conspired against them, at least for a night.
One of the things the Clippers brass likes about Rivers’ reign is the relative calm that has permeated Playa Vista. Rivers’ predecessor, Vinny Del Negro, never truly had job security in his three seasons, and gut-wrenching losses were often followed by bouts of hand-wringing. But Rivers, who is also the team’s senior vice president, can’t be bothered to sweat regular-season losses of the quantum variety. He is monitoring the Clippers’ process for defects. Do that well and results will follow.
In this regard, Griffin has been a revelation over the past month, and with Paul out, he now occupies the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. The ball lands in Griffin’s hands earlier and more often, and the choreography rotates around him. His usage rate has skyrocketed over the past month -- 29.8 since Paul left the lineup, up from 26.9 prior to Paul’s injury. Applied to the full season, that number would trail only Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
Griffin and Rivers had conversations prior to the season about using Griffin out of the pinch post as a playmaker to maximize his triple-threat capabilities. Griffin loved the idea to showcase his passing but also wanted to reserve the right to back down a guy who couldn't match him physically.
He was back in the coaches’ section every trip [during the Clippers’ seven-game road stretch]. And we’re like, ‘Go back to the front and play cards.'
”-- Doc Rivers on an injured Chris Paul
With Paul on the shelf, Griffin’s game looks like a combination of what he and Rivers each imagined. Griffin is now the Clippers’ most potent playmaker and most reliable facilitator. Per ESPN Stats & Info, his assist rate prior to Paul’s injury was 14.5, which is impressive for a big man. Since Jan. 4, it's 22.0 -- a number usually owned by distribution-minded wing players.
But it’s not just Griffin’s assist stats; it’s his command. When Redick buzzes around those multiple screens and curls up from the baseline, it’s Griffin’s play to make -- whether it’s a pass, a handoff or a quick jumper for himself in open space. When the Clippers need to establish an offensive rhythm, it’s Griffin’s responsibility to control the game and time the possession.
It’s not as if Griffin is a reluctant playmaker with Paul on the floor, and he never shies away from working down low. The Paul-Griffin two-man game has been the foundation of an offense that has finished in the top four each of the three seasons the pair has played together. Paul’s re-entry into the force field should require no adjustment other than the realization that there’s more that Griffin can do offensively than previously thought.
The carping from the gallery that Griffin couldn't suffice as a No. 1 option has quieted in recent days, but as much as Griffin has impressed the critics on the set, the most important observer is on the Clippers’ bench. Paul has spent the past month watching Griffin house-sit the offense. The Clippers have learned some illuminating things about themselves and Griffin in Paul’s absence, which should end in the next couple of weeks. His return to the lineup will serve as the ultimate midseason acquisition.
Meanwhile, the Clippers feel like a real contender for the first time since the preseason. If the guys on the court believe it, and the suits upstairs see it, and the fans sense it, then Paul must too. This was the meaning behind Spoelstra’s message in Portland: Superstars need reassurance that the world will remain on its axis without them. The Clippers’ supporting cast has provided that.
If current trends continue, the place will be in as good condition when Paul returns as it was when he left -- and that’s as vital for Paul as it is for anyone.