No Chris Paul? No problem. Clippers win convincingly in Houston
The Clippers had no Chris Paul. They were on the road. And they played two days after winning an exhausting Game 7.
The Clippers didn't just steal Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, they earned it with a convincing 117-101 victory at the Toyota Center.
Blake Griffin stepped up, yet again, and had a triple double, his second consecutive and third this postseason. Griffin had 26 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists. He even played point guard for a bit with Paul out with a left hamstring strain. He was the leader. The facilitator. The aggressor. He did it all.
And Paul had a nice view from the Clippers bench next to the coaching staff.
A point-guard-by-committee of Austin Rivers, who got his first career playoff start, Jamal Crawford, Griffin and Lester Hudson worked.
There was much concern outside that without the injured Paul - who made the last-second, game-winner in Game 7 against the Spurs in the first round - the Clippers wouldn't be the same. They weren't the same, but they were still plenty good.
"You've heard me say it for two years now, we pay everybody and I'm going to keep saying it," Doc Rivers said. "I tell our guys that all the time. We don't mention injuries. We don't talk about them and we just tell our guys, 'you execute and step into the role. You execute and play.'
"I thought our guys had a ton of confidence coming into the game. They knew without Chris it would be different in the way we play, and they accepted that."
The Clippers were down by as many as 13 points in the first half but used a 37-point scoring barrage in the third quarter to open overtake the Rockets. J.J. Redick got hot in the second half, and the Clippers curtailed their turnovers.
Paul's status is still uncertain for Game 2 on Wednesday, but according to Doc Rivers, he wouldn't sit him, with the luxury of one victory, for rest. Paul turns 30 on Wednesday.
"If he's healthy he'll play, if he's not he won't," Paul said. "This game was on me. I had no intentions of playing Chris after watching that. The next game will be what the medical staff says. Now, I have to trust what they say."
And the Clippers trusted in the system, reserves, Griffin and Austin Rivers, who got help and advice from Paul on the bench.
Austin Rivers learned in the morning he would make his first playoff start. He played well in Game 4 at San Antonio off the bench and had another career-playoff high Monday with 17 points, four steals and three assists.
"I told people I'm not C.P. I'm not Chris Paul," Rivers said. "I'm not ever going to be Chris Paul. I'm Austin Rivers. I can only be myself. I can't run the same sets he runs.There's sets I run he can't run. We're two different players. Two different people.
"... I have to run the sets I know. I got with J.J. and Blake, leaders, and they came up to me and said these are things they think will work. And they did. At the end of the day you have to be aggressive and have fun. People were looking at this as a negative thing. I was so excited."
The Clippers, despite being two days removed from that Game 7 win and without their leader, seemed fresh and full of energy. The Rockets had five days off since their last game.
Doc Rivers gave Paul the choice of whether he wanted to watch in the locker room or from the bench. He was active on the bench, despite that left hamstring strain. He was the first one on the court with high-fives. Paul, wearing a green jacket, was right there in huddles, too. Chris Paul told Doc Rivers he'd never sweated so much.
Paul had advice for everyone from Rivers to Jordan and he pumped his fists and yelled for defensive stops, drawing fouls and everything good. He sat next to Sam Cassell and while he looked like he belonged there, he doesn't.
"We'd rather have him being playing Paul than Coach Paul," Jordan said. "Hopefully, he's not out very long. If he is, Austin, Lester and Jamal and guys like that will have to step up and they will."
Playing without Paul was the biggest challenge but to play without him on the road on short rest added up to a critical victory in a crucial situation.
"You can add them all up, but the bottom line is it's a win, and we need three more," Redick said. "This team has shown great resolve and great mental toughness. I feel good about where we are. I've always felt we had the talent. That mental toughness has been questioned. Our resolve has been questioned and at times, rightfully so. But we're on the right track with that."
Both teams were sloppy and had a combined 44 turnovers. The Clippers were down by just four points at halftime, and Griffin, Matt Barnes, DeAndre Jordan & Co. preached patience. They'd been there and done that.
"I said a lot of things. My main message throughout the entire game was to stay together," Griffin said. "There's no reason for us to ever crumble and fall apart."
They didn't fall apart. Not because of the turnovers and not without Paul.
"This is a game where the head of the snake is gone, and we didn't take full advantage of it," Rockets forward Josh Smith said.
No Paul, no problem.
And now, Houston has a problem.