Clippers win fifth straight over Knicks, finding their way in Chris Paul’s absence

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NEW YORK — The Clippers were a middle of the pack playoff team in the loaded Western Conference, before Chris Paul went down with a shoulder injury that could keep him out up to five weeks.

Common sense would dictate that they see an immediate drop-off in overall play and production, but the absence of the All-World point guard has allowed the team to focus more on its system, and see other individuals elevate their play in order to help the team continue to achieve success.

L.A. won its fifth straight without Paul on Friday, an easy 109-95 win over a depleted Knicks squad. But there hasn’t been one particular key to the team’s recent string of victories, as Clippers head coach Doc Rivers pointed out afterward.

“We’re kind of making it up,” he said. “We really are. At some point in a game we make a defensive run; we just need to do it for four quarters. The one good thing is offensively, we’ve moved the ball. We had five guys in double figures tonight. It’s tough to guard a team when the ball’s moving and you can’t key on one guy.”

Jamal Crawford finished with 29 points off the bench, and Blake Griffin continued his elite play with 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting, to go along with seven rebounds and three steals. The season began in Los Angeles with many believing Paul might put together something approaching an MVP campaign, and he was spectacular before the injury. But it’s been Griffin who has elevated his game to that level, and his play all season has been more than impressive.

“He’s just been great,” Rivers said of Griffin. “He really has. This run — it’s been all year. He’s doing everything — he’s rebounding, we put him on Carmelo down the stretch. He’s doing everything a coach could ask him to do And he’s leading, as well.”

Griffin has been consistent with his amazing performances, but as Rivers said, it’s not as though it’s a recent occurrence — it’s been all season long. Griffin sees Paul’s absence as an opportunity to test the team’s mettle, which he believes may pay dividends later when the postseason comes around.

“You learn everybody’s fight and resolve,” Griffin said. “I think we’ve really shown that we’ve kind of buckled down and really played within ourselves, and really relied on our system to get us there. Nobody’s trying to do too much, and that’s what you need when somebody like CP goes down, because you always worry about somebody trying to replace him. And from day one I think we’ve tried to say that you can’t replace him, and that everybody has to elevate their game.”

To this point, most have. DeAndre Jordan patrols the paint and cleans the glass, Darren Collison is allowed to try to score more than facilitate as Paul’s replacement, and the offense runs through Griffin in the post much more than usual in the team’s current situation.

The hope in Los Angeles is that Paul’s midseason absence could be a blessing in disguise. If the team can learn to trust the system and play to its individuals’ strengths while working toward common goals, then good things are likely to be on the horizon once Paul is back.

“You can’t really go into the playoffs and not know your identity, and not know what you’re trying to accomplish every game,” Griffin said. “For us to every game have a game plan, and have to go out and execute that game plan in order to win — it’s big. And hopefully it gives us some experience playing through adversity.”

Chris Paul posts emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant

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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight.

The shocking death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash — hit CP3 hard and the point guard missed his first game of the year Monday, sitting out as he tried to come to grips with it all. Kobe and Paul won Gold Medals together, their kids were friends, and they competed fiercely against each other on the court. 

Tuesday night, Paul posted this personal tribute to Kobe.

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I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time 🙏🏾 #Mamba4Life #Mambacita

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Like Paul, a lot of us are struggling to process it all.

Watch Jerry West’s emotional memories of trading for/his relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Jerry West has never understood why people thought he was brilliant for recognizing the talent of a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant coming out of high school. To him it was obvious.

If it had been obvious (and if that era had not frowned on the development that came with drafting high school players), Kobe wouldn’t have been a Laker, and NBA history might be very different.

For West, Kobe was not just another player, he was like a son. West talked about it on the well done TNT special commemorating Kobe Tuesday night.

What those neatly packaged TNT clip does not show is just how difficult and emotional it was for West to talk about Kobe.

West has had a life of incredible highs, but also more lows and pain than many — abused by his father and battling depression his entire life — and this is another emotional tax on the NBA legend.

Joel Embiid returns to Philadelphia rotation after nine-game absence

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When you saw the image of Joel Embiid‘s dislocated ring finger facing a direction no finger should face, you knew he was going to miss some time (even though he had it taped up and returned to that game). Embiid had surgery to repair a torn radial collateral ligament on the ring finger of his left hand. Ultimately he missed nine games while he recovered.

Tuesday night against the Warriors, Embiid will be back.

He will have a soft wrap on his left hand that has been cleared by the league.

Philadelphia went 6-3 while Embiid was out.

Ben Simmons stepped up — in his last five games (before Tuesday) he averaged 24 points a game on 70.6 percent shooting, plus 10 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. Without Embiid in the paint or taking up touches, Simmons took over the offense and looked much more comfortable in his role.

However, the Sixers’ offensive rating in those nine Embiid-less games was 104.9, 29th in the NBA (even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league). Simmons may have been playing better but the offense was not.

When Simmons and Embiid share the court this season, their offensive rating is 106.7 — not great, but better than without Embiid playing.

Victor Oladipo returns to Pacers Wednesday, likely off bench with minutes limit

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Indiana has gone 30-17 this season and sits as the five seed in the Eastern Conference — and Wednesday they get their best player back.

Victor Oladipo — the former Most Improved Player and All-NBA team member who has been out for most of a year with a right quad tendon rupture — practiced with the Pacers on Tuesday and, as expected, will make his return to the court Wednesday night against the Bulls.

Coach Nate McMillan would not say how he planned to use Oladipo but, considering the minutes limit, off the bench seems the most likely move. McMillan said the team would revisit the minutes and role after the All-Star break.

While Milwaukee has separated itself atop the East, the next five teams — Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Indiana — are all within 2.5 games of each other and could end up in any order. If Oladipo can return close to the All-NBA form he was in prior to his injury, the Pacers become a big threat to break out of that group. If nothing else, they become a much tougher out in the postseason.