LOS ANGELES — The picture of Chris Paul sitting on the bench next to two injured backcourt mates in street clothes, Mo Williams and Chauncey Billups, and grimacing as two trainers huddled around, working on his right elbow was not necessarily worth a thousand words.
Not when two would suffice: Uh, oh.
“I said to myself, ‘This can’t be happening right now,'” Clippers guard Randy Foye said.
For a franchise with a long list of season- and/or career-altering injuries — Bill Walton’s ankles, Danny Manning’s knee, Elton Brand’s Achilles tendon, Shaun Livingston’s knee and Blake Griffin’s kneecap — Foye was hardly the only one anxious.
But all was well that ended well, and so it was when Paul returned from a trip to the locker room late in the third quarter to treat and wrap his right elbow, and helped finish off a 105-96 victory Saturday night over the Utah Jazz.
Paul finished with 26 points, handed out six assists and was credited with a sigh of relief that coursed through the arena on his return.
Afterward, his right elbow wrapped from his wrist to his biceps, Paul held a protein shake in his left hand as he spoke with reporters. He said he was in some discomfort after Utah guard Devin Harris had hit him in the elbow and that he didn’t have all the feeling back in two of his fingers, but he expected to be just fine.
“You make it sound like I’m dying,” Paul said after answering one too many questions about the injury. “I’m going to be OK.”
Such grave tones were warranted surrounding the health of the franchise’s transformative player — and the Clippers’ history of miserable luck.
In fact, the victory, which kept them on the heels of the first-place Lakers in the Pacific Division, served as a testament to how Paul has revamped expectations.
It was the team’s fifth consecutive win, a modest accomplishment for most franchises, but a milestone for this one. It is the first time the Clippers have won five straight since 2006, and it was the first time they completed a five-game homestand unbeaten since 1979 — so long ago that Kenyon Martin and Billups were the only Clippers who were born by then.
After Paul rescued the Clippers with a last-second shot that beat Portland on Friday night, he was near flawless on Saturday. He made 10-of-14 shots and helped repel the Jazz, who had trailed by 17 points early in the fourth quarter. When Paul Millsap missed a layup and a tip-in with the Clippers clinging to a 90-82 lead, Paul followed Nick Young’s missed layup with a put-back.
Then, after Caron Butler stole the ball and pushed it ahead to Paul, the All-Star guard feigned as if he was going to drop a between-the-legs pass for Griffin. Instead, he bounced the ball between his legs to himself, sending Utah guard Earl Watson left as he went right, for a layup.
“It’s like a chess match when you play against him,” Watson said. “His basketball IQ is that of a veteran coach. He’s always putting the game together like a puzzle and he’s always changing the puzzle so you have to be ready because he’s always thinking beyond the next play. But what separates him is his toughness. He fights you to win and I love that in him. A lot of times he’s the smartest guy on the court and the toughest, too.”
That toughness was put to the test with 7:39 left in the third quarter, when Harris reached around Paul to poke at the ball. He didn’t get the ball, but he hit Paul on the elbow. Paul doubled over, called time out and lumbered to the bench where he sat down.
A few minutes later, Paul headed for the locker room.
“I could tell on his face I didn’t think it was serious,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “I knew he was in pain, but I didn’t think it was anything serious. You just never know. You really don’t. As soon as I talked to Jason [Powell], our trainer, and got the word, I was relieved.”
When Paul returned from the locker room and emerged onto the court, he was welcomed back with a rousing ovation. At one point, after Watson locked him up away from the ball, Paul looked uncomfortable and flexed his elbow.
“It’s like a stinger,” Paul said. “I couldn’t feel my last two fingers.”
Is he OK now?
“I will be,” he said.
Did he get a shot?
“No, man,” Paul said with light-hearted disdain. “I’m scared of needles.”
The Clippers surged when Paul left, with guard Eric Bledsoe, Griffin (24 points, eight rebounds, six assists) and Randy Foye (17 points, six assists) carrying the load on offense and the defense holding the Jazz to seven points the rest of the quarter. By the time the fourth quarter arrived, a five-point Clipper lead had blossomed to 13.
The Clippers will take the momentum of their streak to Dallas on Monday and then into their game with the Lakers on Wednesday, both games serving as potential tiebreakers for the Western Conference’s No. 3, 4 and 5 teams and also severe tests.
Yet more importantly than momentum, the Clippers will take something else into those games — their superlative point guard.