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Clippers know Griffin holds key to any long playoff run

Chris Paul says Los Angeles 'can't win a championship' without Griffin in the lineup

POSTED: Mar 1, 2016 10:25 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Blake Griffin hasn't played for the Clippers since a Christmas Day showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers.

— The questions kept coming at Chris Paul as he sat in front of his locker after a game, the same way the wins keep coming, and he maneuvered around each with the same skill and certainty of CP3 picking apart a defense, until he had driven the topic in the direction he wanted.

Blake Griffin is the direction Paul wanted. Any discussion about the Los Angeles Clippers, where they are as one of the hot teams of the league and where they are going with new hope as a Western Conference threat to the rival Golden State Warriors is about the power forward who is missing but very present.

I don't care if he gets back the day before the playoffs. We're playing for a championship and there's no championship without Blake Griffin. There's not one.

– Chris Paul, on Blake Griffin

Asked about his statistical spike the last two months with Griffin sidelined (partially torn quadriceps and a fractured right hand), plus the play of DeAndre Jordan, and Paul said, "We can't win a championship without Blake. That's the only reason we play."

Paul was asked if he is concerned about Griffin returning too close to the playoffs, without enough time for the Clippers to find a rhythm, and he said, "I don't care if he gets back the day before the playoffs. We're playing for a championship and there's no championship without Blake Griffin. There's not one."

Pressed whether the Clips will need some lead time, a couple weeks for Griffin to get back in game shape and for the rotation to reclaim its flow without threat of imminent postseason elimination, and Paul said, "We don't know. As soon as he's ready, we're going to go from there. But do we need him? We'd be crazy to say, 'No, no,' you know what I mean? It's 'Yeah, yeah.' We're just going to take it day by day."

Paul Dominates Kings

Chris Paul scores 40 points, hands out 13 assists and grabs eight rebounds to lead the visiting Clippers past the Kings, 117-107.

He said all this late Friday night in the visitor's locker room inside Sleep Train Arena, after the Clippers beat the Sacramento Kings 117-107 behind another CP3 clinic, this time of 40 points, 13 assists (against two turnovers), eight rebounds and two steals. Oh, and after the Clippers had gone from 17-13 (.567) with Griffin in the lineup to 21-7 (.750) without Griffin, before moving to 22-7 (.759) after Los Angeles beat the Nets on Monday night at Staples Center.

They are telling people not to believe those numbers. Or the part about averaging 102.1 points with him during the 21-7 run and 108.0 points without Griffin. Or about the defensive numbers ticking from 100.6 to 100.0. Or the point differential going from plus-1.5 to plus-8.0.

"We made a lot of changes and I just think it took a while to take hold," coach Doc Rivers said of the improved defense that goes beyond the points. "I thought it started about two or three weeks before Blake went out. Defense is confidence too. It's not just offense."

This is tricky in a lot of ways, starting with the cause of Griffin's hand injury -- he got hurt, and put the team's season at risk, by hitting the assistant equipment manager outside a Toronto restaurant in January. If they're brawling on the street after dinner, what chance do the Clips have of keeping their composure in a seven-game series against the Warriors, who already like to antagonize them, or the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder?

This was the group that had a playoff meltdown in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, after all. That meltdown is not to be confused with the playoff meltdown in the 2014 Western Conference semifinals against Oklahoma City. Griffin would later call it a situation among friends that escalated, but either way the front office suspended him four games, a discipline that would begin once he was ruled healthy enough to play.

There is always the chance Paul is purposely moving Griffin front and center in advance of the return, pushing Griffin to come back with precision focus, of needing to produce at a high level to put the spotlight back on his game, that could drive L.A. to at least the West finals. Or just maybe Paul is right.

Griffin's stats aside (23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds), his return gives the Clippers a chance to play him at center as Los Angeles tries to ready a lineup to counteract a head-to-head matchup with Golden State and its lethal small lineup. Rivers has been relying on it more lately anyway -- Jordan surrounded by four point guards and wings -- but is excited to see the possibilities with Griffin as the big. Plus, getting Griffin back will simply be a boost to the front line as potential showdowns with the Warriors (Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut), Spurs (Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge) and Thunder (Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams) loom. Jordan and Griffin simply has a better chance of standing up in a regular, non-small ball, situation than Jordan and Luc Mbah a Moute.

When that happens remains unclear. While the Clippers are expecting the return of Austin Rivers from a fractured left hand within a week, a boost for the backcourt depth, Griffin's timeline is unknown. Maybe late-March, maybe early-April, with the suspension adding about another week. Rivers does say he is projecting Griffin will have enough time to work to a good place before the playoffs, eliminating a potential problem.

"The only way it's a problem for us is if he comes back with five days left," Rivers said. "It'd be nice to have a couple weeks. If we have a couple weeks, then I think we'll be good."

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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