LOS ANGELES — Despite the success they had during his absence, the Clippers need Chris Paul.
They need his energy, his direction, his leadership and his presence. Without it, they’re a good team, but as they proved Sunday night at Staples Center, when he’s on the court, they play at another level.
How else to explain their dismantling of the Philadelphia 76ers? The Clippers led by as many as 56 points and set a franchise record for margin of victory with their 45-point win, 123-78. They were so in command that the starters sat the entire fourth quarter.
It was Paul’s first game back following a five-week layoff to recover from a separated right shoulder. He came out to a rousing ovation during pregame introductions, then took over, scoring seven points and adding eight assists and four steals in 22 minutes 44 seconds.
"I don’t think it’s any coincidence that having this guy back set the tone — the energy from when he was introduced to the level of play he brings," said Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, sitting next to Paul after the game. "It makes everybody better. It makes everybody’s job easier. We fed off of that."
The Clippers were methodical from the start, leading 13-0, then pushing it to 30-5 after 6 ½ minutes and 62-21 in the second quarter. They shot 56.8 percent in the first half (25 of 44) while holding the Sixers to just 15.4 percent (8 of 52).
"I just learned what a playoff team looks like," Sixers rookie Michael Carter-Williams said. "I think the game is a lot different, from NBA regular-season games to playoff games. They came out like they were playing in the NBA Finals."
The Clippers were 12-6 during Paul’s absence, but his return marked a significant moment for them. They were sharp defensively, and their energy level was off the charts in transition. On consecutive possessions in the second quarter, Paul set up dunks by Blake Griffin, throwing the ball off the backboard the first time, then tossing a scoop pass in the lane.
Both times, Griffin responded with windmill dunks.
"I just think they were excited to get Chris back in the lineup," coach Doc Rivers said. "You could see that in the way the guys were flying down the floor."
For Paul, it was simply a relief to get back. If there were any concerns about his shoulder or his stamina, they disappeared quickly.
"It felt great to play," he said. "It’s one of those things where you never know what it’s going to be like until you get out there and compete and play. It felt good to get out there and compete."
He went crashing to the floor twice early, and although both were momentary scares, they were false alarms.
"It spooked me a little bit, especially because it was running into D.J. (DeAndre Jordan)," he said. "It was my own fault too because I waited too long to make a decision. Once I got through that one, I was OK."
So are the Clippers. They play Wednesday at home against the Portland Trail Blazers, then take a five-day break for the All-Star game in New Orleans.
Griffin, who scored 26 points in 25 minutes, will be there. So will Paul. But the relief for the Clippers is that their point guard is healthy and ready for the final stretch.
"It’s going to be nice that he’s fresh," Griffin said. "Any time you can rest that many games … obviously, it wasn’t what we wanted, but coming down the stretch, it’s a blessing."