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.”