PAUL’S RETURN MAKES THINGS ‘EASIER’ FOR CLIPPERS

Chris Paul had 7 points, eight assists, and four steals in his return.
Chris Paul had 7 points, eight assists, and four steals in his return.

LOS ANGELES – Chris Paul bounded on the court as the 90-second countdown began prior to tipoff against the Philadelphia 76ers and greeted everyone near him: teammates, opposing players, officials.

Wearing a padded sleeve under his baby blue short-sleeve jersey, Paul had a bounce in his step like the past 18 games sitting around watching had been eating at him. He said a few weeks ago that he just wanted to “hoop.” It didn’t matter if it was a pickup game or a Sunday night at Staples Center, the seven-time All-Star and basketball lifer had to feel his sneakers against the hardwood.

“It just felt good to get out there and compete,” Paul said. “There are so many different things going through your mind, especially when you come back. You want to make sure you’re not too tired, make sure you’re not trying too hard. At the same time, we’ve been playing extremely well and I didn’t want to break that rhythm also.”

The Clippers won 12 of their 18 games while Paul recovered from a separated right shoulder he suffered on Jan. 3. He scored seven points with eight assists and four steals in 22:44 of his return. But the numbers were secondary to what Paul brought to everyone else. The Clippers offense had scored 112.1 points per 100 possessions without him, a juggernaut in its own right. They looked even more precise with Paul running things.

“It’s weird, because you obviously know how good he is,” said Jamal Crawford, who had 21 points starting alongside Paul. “Playing with him and watching him from afar, watching him work out. But then to get back on the court in front of everybody in real games situations, he makes everybody’s job so much easier.”

As energetic as Paul seemed, his teammates matched it. The Clippers scored 46 points in the first quarter against the 76ers and by the time Paul checked out for the final time with 5:18 to go in the third, they had run up a lead as large 56.

“It’s fun to have Chris [Paul] back, obviously,” Crawford said. “He brought a lot of energy, and the crowd fed off of it.”

Paul, who was given a rousing ovation during player introductions, made his first two jumpers, the first coming as he bounced around a screen from DeAndre Jordan four minutes into the game and knocked down a shot from the foul line.

Of course, there were also kinks to be worked out. Paul mistimed a couple of passes, was stripped in the open floor on more than one occasion and his first hard contact came in a collision with Jordan.

“It spooked me a little bit, especially because I ran into D.J.,” Paul said. “It was my own fault, too, because I waited too long to make a decision. Once I got through that one I was okay.”

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers thought Paul looked “great” and due to the decided margin in the game it allowed him to limit Paul’s minutes.

“I didn’t want to have to play him that much anyways so in this case, it kind of worked out for him,” Rivers said. “He got a taste of it and now we get to have a practice on Tuesday and then play a game on Wednesday, so he gets another break. I don’t know if there is a better way to bring a guy back in than in the way it’s worked out.”

Without Paul the Clippers ran the offense more through Blake Griffin, who averaged 27.5 points in the 18 games Paul missed. Paul had his hands on the ball more Sunday, but it did not take away from Griffin’s production. He had 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting, including earning a layup off a feed from Paul on the first possession of the game.

The duo looked as synced up as they have in their two-plus seasons together and in many ways, Paul allowed Griffin’s post touches and speed in transition dictate the relentless pace in which they played.

“We feel like we can play that way and play that way to our advantage, you know,” Griffin said of the pace. “And we tried to use that.”

Paul said he noticed the somewhat increased pace even as a spectator. “Even sitting on the sidelines I could see that if we push it and get stops [we were at our best],” Paul said.

Now, with Paul back in the fold, the Clippers may get even sharper.

They put up pedestrian defensive numbers without Paul, something Rivers said was aided by Paul’s return because of his ability to stifle opposing pick and rolls and cut off dribble penetration. And on Sunday the already high-octane offense operated at peak efficiency before the score got out of hand.

Asked if he thought the start to game could have gotten off to any better of a start, Paul said he would have to go back and watch film. Everything seemed like a blur, literally and figuratively.

Paul, though, was just happy to be out there again.