PAUL NEARING RETURN, ACCORDING TO RIVERS

Chris Paul warming-up prior to tip-off
Chris Paul warming-up prior to tip-off

LOS ANGELES – Chris Paul’s return is getting closer.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said Wednesday prior to the Clippers’ 116-112 loss to the Miami Heat that his superstar point guard played 1-on-1 at shootaround and is eyeing a return in the coming days.

“I think he’s very close,” Rivers said. “I don’t want to give a day or anything. I don’t think he’ll play Friday but he could play after that. But I don’t know that.”

Paul has missed 17 consecutive games with a Grade 3 AC joint separation in his right shoulder. He started shooting a little more than a week ago and has been upping his workload in the last few days in anticipation of return to the lineup.

The original timetable for Paul’s return was expected to be six weeks from Jan. 3, when he suffered the injury in the third quarter of the Clippers’ come-from-behind victory against the Dallas Mavericks. Wednesday’s work was a positive sign that he may be ready sooner than originally.

“Today in 1-on-1s he took contact, but it’s still not a 5-on-5,” Rivers said. “We may [practice] tomorrow or Saturday just to get him some contact.”

Jamal Crawford, who has averaged 22.1 points per game since Paul went down, caught the tail end of Paul’s workout at shootaround. “He’s very spry and moving very quick,” Crawford said. “So, that was good to see.”

The Clippers are 11-6 without their MVP candidate and seven-time All-Star and have the second most efficient offense in the league (111.5 points per 100 possessions) in the games he’s missed. More importantly, they have actually gained ground on the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, moving from three games back the day after Paul’s injury to 1.5 games back entering play Wednesday.

Rivers thinks the way the Clippers have played in Paul’s absence will only make them better whenever he returns, whether it’s Sunday against the Philadelphia 76ers or sometime after that.

“I think what happens with any guy that sits is he sees some things and says, ‘This looks better or worse.’ And sees what he can do,” Rivers said. “I don’ think I need to tell him much. I kind of liked the way were playing before he went out.”

Blake Griffin, who had a season-high 43 points and 15 rebounds against the Heat and has assumed a greater leadership role with Paul out, agreed with Rivers.

Said Griffin, “You just want to add Chris into the mix with what we’ve built and take it from there.”