Posted Feb 7 2012 10:56AM
ORLANDO -- Chauncey Billups did an easy right turn, as you would at a stop sign, fell to the court, then crawled. He couldn't get up. The Achilles wouldn't cooperate, and the pain ... it was so severe, even Chris Paul felt it.
"Chauncey, he means so much to this team," Paul said later, after Billups was air-lifted by his teammates and carried to the locker room. "And so much to me."
Suddenly, the Clippers are threatening to revert to being the Clippers, in the unlucky sense anyway. It's times like this when you wonder if this franchise will forever be cursed. Danny Manning, Ron Harper, even going back to Bill Walton in San Diego, even Blake Griffin fresh from the Draft, they come to the Clippers and get ... Clipped. You think Paul, while he weighs the thought of signing long-term, is nervously wondering the same?
They'll learn more about Billups' condition today but in a sense, the Clippers had a pretty strong hunch Monday night when they saw him on crutches. Coach Vinny Del Negro's chin quivered when he talked about Billups being "re-evaluated" as though he already knew. On a night when Paul shot down the Magic in overtime and showed once again how he transformed the franchise into a winner, which ordinarily would be a reason to celebrate, the mood was grim. Like old times.
"It hurts," said Griffin, also feeling the pain.
It's not too common for a team to mope after watching a 35-year-old guard take a spill. But that's exactly the point. Billups comes with 14 years of NBA treadwear which doesn't favor a quick recovery from an Achilles injury, and a tear -- which is the suspicion -- means he's done, maybe for good. That would be a big loss for a team that used the two point-guard system to near perfection, with Paul and Billups working in poetic tandem and living on lob passes. And that doesn't explain the entire value of Billups. He's averaging almost 15 points and five assists and brings a big shot in tight moments, always critical for a relatively young team like the Clippers.
Not to mention a certain backcourt mate who came to rely on him.
"He's the best guard I've ever started with in the backcourt since I've been in the NBA," Paul said. "I trust him with everything."
Paul came to the House That Dwight Howard Built and immediately drew the envy of the man of the house. Not only is Paul exactly the kind of point guard -- an All-Star, in other words -- that Howard would love to play alongside, but Paul isn't toiling in a place where he doesn't want to be. While Howard dreams of being anywhere but Orlando, Paul has moved on, thanks to Hornets owner David Stern, and moved up. Rather than being stuck in New Orleans and circling the trade deadline on the calendar, Paul is on a 15-7 team, living in L.A. and feeding Griffin.
"It's been great," Paul said. "Everything I thought it would be. The organization's been great, first class. And my teammates, we're like a college team. We go out to dinner on the road, and it's the whole team, not just three or four of us. We really stick together and it's good to see."
Paul's impact has been immediate and convincing. Last season without him, the Clippers were interesting yet lacking in substance. They were good for a few Griffin highlights, and also the Draft lottery. Paul changed everything: the results, the expectations and the outlook.
"Just having him is obviously very, very helpful," Griffin said. "He can get buckets whenever he needs to. We rely on him a lot so we have to do a better job of not putting him in that position as much."
But now, with Billups' season suddenly clouded, doesn't the burden almost double with Paul? The Clippers do have depth, and additional help at the point; Mo Williams (14 points a game) is one of the better sixth men. But they do play in the West, where the contenders are stacked, the competition is fierce and the margin for error is slim. And for the Clippers, it just narrowed again.
"You never want to see somebody get hurt but there's nothing you can do about it now," Griffin said. "We have to figure out what is next."
Well, here's a start: They should cross their fingers and hope Paul doesn't fall for the jinx. He does have a history of injuries. And the Clippers, shall we say, have a history, period. When the Clippers aren't suffering from self-inflicted wounds, the basketball gods are punishing them. That's a constant and cruel double-whammy. The Clippers rarely get a break or avoid misfortune. That's the life they live.
And that's something for Paul to ponder between now and next season, the final year of his contract. As he saw Monday, being a Clipper can be a pain.
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