Chris Paul

PORTLAND – Life in the last couple of weeks without Chris Paul has required some adjusting.

The Clippers are off to a franchise-best 32-12 start because they are deep, versatile, boast a top five offense and defense, veteran leadership, have a deep-rooted team chemistry and arguably three All-Stars; one of them being the most dynamic point guard in the league. 

Are the Clippers talented without Paul, who has missed five of the last seven games with a bone bruise in his right kneecap? Of course. But playing without their “general,” as Head Coach Vinny Del Negro has referred to him, has meant some noticeable changes.

“It’s tough,” Grant Hill said. “CP (Paul) is having an MVP-type year and it’s really hard to replace him.”

The Clippers are 3-2 this year without Paul, including two consecutive losses. They have scored 100 points just once in those games, averaging nearly 102 per game with Paul in the lineup. And while Paul played in Monday’s 106-99 loss at Golden State he was clearly not himself.

A slight limp became more pronounced as the game wore on. He bumped knees with Harrison Barnes on one occasion, Jarrett Jack on another and by the fourth quarter, with the Clippers trying to fend off the Warriors, Paul missed a 3-pointer from straightaway and appeared to purposefully land on his left leg to avoid putting any pressure on his wounded right leg.

Del Negro held Paul out of the next two games and maintained Thursday prior to his team’s 93-88 defeat to the Suns that there is no firm timetable for Paul’s return.

Youngster Eric Bledsoe has started five games in Paul’s stead, averaging 12.4 points, 3.6 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals. But he also spent parts of Thursday’s loss in foul trouble and shot 5-for-16 Tuesday against the Thunder.

“He’s had a couple, for him, subpar games, but he’s been doing a good job for us,” Del Negro said. “[I want him] to play his game, run the team, get us into sets, get after it defensively and he’s the quarterback out there. He’s going to have to handle things as best he can and he’s done a good job out there. I just want him to get as much experience and learn and understand what he’s doing out there.”

Guard Chauncey Billups, who has been out since Dec. 3 with peroneal tendinitis in his left foot, thinks Bledsoe needs to use his strengths to his advantage.

“Obviously, Eric is mostly going to play with his athleticism,” Billups said. “He’s a young player, so you can’t expect him to be as smart as Chris and call the right plays all the time like Chris, but we do expect him to play hard and be athletic, like be who you are. I think he’s done a great job. You expect some struggles out of him playing against starters full-time now and playing against game-plans now. It’s not easy to do.”

Asked what role for Bledsoe during games, Billups added: “I just try to be there for him and talk to him and watch film with him and tell him what I see from the seat that I’m sitting in. I can just try to help him move along faster. Obviously, he’s in a position where we need him to be sped up.”

Bledsoe said being thrust into the starting lineup is something that he has been prepared for. It helps having Paul and Billups next to him and helps that he is a quick study. Assistant Coach Robert Pack’s laptop loaded with game clips has served as Bledsoe’s text book, Paul, Billups and Pack his instructors and each time his name is announced with the Clippers’ starting five, the first question of a 48-minute test.

Still, Bledsoe knows he needs to be more of a leader, more vocal.

“The last two games I didn’t feel like I’ve been a leader,” Bledsoe said.  “I could have been more vocal, getting everybody in their spots and getting everything organized.”

Bledsoe’s ascension to the starting lineup has left repercussions on the rotation. As Del Negro has said the Clippers are only deep when they are healthy and at the moment they are without their starting backcourt (Paul and Billups).

Jamal Crawford’s spent some time at back-up point guard, but Del Negro said he also prefers to free Crawford up off the ball, something that has helped the Sixth Man of the Year candidate become the NBA’s top scorer off the bench. To keep Crawford in that role, Del Negro has used Grant Hill as a point forward at times as well as Lamar Odom. And Green spent a few minutes at point guard with the second unit against the Suns.

“We have players who can play multiple positions,” Odom said. “That’s kind of how we make it easier on each other.”

Even with Bledsoe on the floor, though, the key to making the offense easier for everybody else may be Blake Griffin. In the last five games, he’s averaged 4.8 assists and is one of six players in the league, including Odom, with at least 45 rebounds and 15 assists in that span.

“Blake’s going to get the ball and he’s doing a good job not only scoring and stuff,” Del Negro said. “But kind of being a playmaker for us when we put him at the elbow or they come on a double-team or whatever and he’s more than capable of doing that.”

Griffin, Odom, Bledsoe, Crawford, Hill and everyone else is responsible for replacing Paul and despite two consecutive losses, the Clippers know, like Del Negro said about Griffin, they are more than capable of winning without their general. It just takes some adjusting.