LOS ANGELES – Chris Paul played just a shade under 25 minutes Wednesday night, but he wasn’t satisfied. With 11 days until the regular season unfolds, he’s aching for more playing time.
His conditioning is fine; it’s his rhythm he’s trying to get back.
In August, the Clippers guard underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb, an injury he apparently aggravated during pre-Olympic workouts with Team USA. Now he’s trying to catch up with the rest of his teammates, who have played four preseason games to Paul’s two.
In the Clippers’ 96-94 win over the Utah Jazz at Staples Center, Paul had six points, nine rebounds and no turnovers. But that barely felt like a warm-up.
“I feel great, my body feels great,” Paul said. “The thing for me right now, after being out so long, is that I’m just trying to get my rhythm. I know a lot of times guys don’t play much in the preseason, but I keep telling coach I need them. I need to know that I can go out and get 15 to 20 points and stuff like that because I’ve got to keep getting more comfortable with my thumb.”
It will come in time. Coach Vinny Del Negro played Paul 22 minutes against the Miami Heat on Sunday night in Shanghai during the Clippers’ goodwill trip to China, and even that might have been pushing it a bit. Paul was supposed to make his preseason debut Wednesday, but the team got medical clearance to let him play sooner.
Del Negro has no concerns about Paul. He know that when the season opens Oct. 31 against the Memphis Grizzlies at Staples, Paul will be ready and will get his usual minutes.
“Chris controls the whole tempo of the game,” Del Negro said. “He got us going in the third quarter. He was much more aggressive offensively. I think that’s when he’s at his best.
“He’s such an unselfish player that he’s trying to get everyone involved. But when he starts being aggressive offensively, now the whole court opens up because you have to worry about him even more.”
Paul was the Clippers’ catalyst in the third quarter, bringing the team back from a 48-34 deficit at halftime. The Clippers outscored the Jazz 34-16 in the third, then held on in the final minute to win.
Del Negro complained that the Clippers had a sluggish start, which might have been the result of returning home Sunday from China. The 15-hour time difference, plus an 11-hour flight to Los Angeles, undoubtedly had an effect on some players.
“I know guys are still a little tired,” said Blake Griffin, who had a team-high 23 points on 11-of-20 shooting. “We’ve got a lot of guys that are sick. Some of our guys weren’t even at the shoot-around this morning. We never want to come out flat like that, but I’m really proud of the way we fought back after halftime. Coach kind of got into us and we responded.”
Despite the fact it was merely a preseason game, the final seconds were filled with regular-season intensity. Jamal Crawford made a driving layup to break a 92-92 tie with 41.4 seconds left, then converted a free throw after he was fouled by former Clipper Randy Foye.
Ryan Hollins sealed the win with 5.2 seconds remaining when he blocked a drive by Foye that would have tied the game.
Paul spent those final furious minutes on the bench, but he wanted to be out there. He didn’t care that the game was meaningless.
“It’s always hard for me to treat it like an exhibition,” he said. “But coming from the situation I’m coming from, after sitting out for two months, I’m using this as ways to fine tune. I’ve still got to get that confidence back. When you sit out for two months, you’re not sure what you still can and can’t do, so I’m trying to get that back.”
It will come. He knows it, and so do the Clippers.