In a season full of tests, the Clippers are suddenly facing another.
They have no Chris Paul – at least temporarily – and now they’re in a mini-losing streak one week before beginning their longest stretch of games away from Staples Center this season.
Paul sat for a second consecutive game and the Clippers lost their third in a row, a 93-88 decision Thursday night to the Phoenix Suns. Paul’s bruised right kneecap has kept him out of five of the team’s past seven games, and although the Clippers are 3-2 in those games, they know they’re flirting with fate the longer he sits.
Time to panic? Probably not, although any long-term loss of their point guard and second-leading scorer could make for a tough period leading up to the All-Star Game next month.
“It’s always a shock when you lose somebody of that magnitude,” guard Jamal Crawford said. “But we’ll be better for sure. There’s no way to replace him, but we’ll get together collectively and everybody will step up.”
They didn’t show it Thursday, losing to a Suns team that had dropped 13 of its previous 16 games. Paul, who leads the team in assists and steals, probably won’t return before next week, but it might be longer. His absence comes at a time when the Clippers are about to face their next big challenge.
They play at Portland on Saturday night, return home Sunday for the second of a back-to-back against the Trail Blazers, then they depart again for their annual Grammy trip – eight road games starting next Wednesday. They don’t return to Staples until Feb. 13.
The only saving grace is that six of the eight teams the Clippers face currently have losing records. Only three of their opponents – the Celtics, Heat and Knicks – would be playoff teams if the postseason started today.
But it’s not as if teams don’t view the Clippers as a major target and a chance to pull an upset.
“Every game for us, we know we’re going to get a team’s best,” forward Blake Griffin said. “We’re not going to win all of them, but it’s important to win the games we’re supposed to win.”
If they can do it on the upcoming road swing, it will be a major step forward despite losses this week to Golden State, Oklahoma City and Phoenix. Without Paul, it’s a possible trouble spot, but it’s not like they haven’t face adversity already this season.
“We lost four in a row (in late November) and then we came back and went on a little win streak,” center DeAndre Jordan said. “We didn’t have Chris for three games on the road and Eric (Bledsoe) played his (tail) off and we won all of those games. When somebody’s down we’ve all got to step up a little bit. We’ll be all right.”
In the next three weeks, they’ll have a chance to prove it.
Who’s Hot: Reserve guard Jamal Crawford didn’t make the Western Conference All-Star roster, but he’s played a major role in the Clippers’ success. He ranks among the league leaders in fourth-quarter scoring, and Thursday he scored the Clippers’ last 11 points in the third quarter to bring them back. He had 21 points and now has scored 20 or more 17 times this season – all off the bench.
Who’s Not: Blake Griffin has been on a roll of late, but he was missing in action against the Suns. He took just three shots in the second half of a close game and finished with 12 points in 37 minutes. This was a game in which Griffin could have, and should have, asserted himself, although his unproductive night might have been a result of mildly twisting his ankle early in the Suns game. For Griffin, one bad game is too many.
1. One area on defense in which the Clippers can improve is their three-point defense. They gave up 12 three-pointers to the Warriors on Monday and 15 to the Thunder one night later. It shouldn’t be that difficult, right? “We have to run them off the three and make them beat us with something else,” Crawford said. “That’s kind of been our Achilles heel so far.” If they allow shooters open looks from long distance, they’ll continue to get burned.
2. Even though Crawford didn’t win a spot on the Western Conference All-Star roster, he’s still having an All-Star-worthy season. The problem is, there were too many deserving players and not enough slots. Crawford is second on the Clippers in scoring and is a candidate for the league’s sixth man award, but Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Tony Parker were picked ahead of him. If anyone has an argument, it’s Golden State’s Stephen Curry, who is averaging 20.9 points.
3. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Eric Bledsoe is a wonderfully athletic player, as quick as anyone in the game and arguably the best leaper for his size (6-foot-1). He had a key blocked shot in the last 33 seconds Thursday night and fed Crawford for an assist that pushed the Clippers to within three points, but he’s not the distributor or floor director Paul is. When he gets there, he’ll be a very special player.
Quotes of the week
“There’s no excuses. We were in this game. Whoever’s out there, I have confidence in them and they’ve got to make the plays.”
– Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, asked what kind of impact Paul would have had on the Suns game
“I’m really bummed for Jamal. He deserves it. He’s playing a very important role on a very good team.”
–Injured guard Chauncey Billups on Crawford, who was left off the All-Star roster
“The Clippers might have the deepest team in the league, but as Reggie and I both know, the game comes down to stars.”
– TNT analyst Charles Barkley, speaking of fellow broadcaster Reggie Miller, on the Clippers’ bench
The Clippers will probably be homesick soon. After playing Portland at Staples Center on Sunday, they go on the road for eight consecutive games. Yes, it’s their annual Grammy trip. No reason they shouldn’t go at least 6-2, but then, a lot depends on whether Paul plays.
Tower of Power?
After losing to the Suns, you’ve got to wonder if the Clippers still qualify. But consider this: Their current losing streak is only the second time they’ve dropped as many as three games in a row. They’ve still got the third-best record in the NBA. That says something.