CLIPPERS TO FACE THUNDER WITHOUT PAUL

Chris Paul

LOS ANGELES – Point guard Chris Paul will miss his fourth game of the season Tuesday night due to a bruised right kneecap.

“He was feeling better and then we got him through the Washington game (Jan. 19) and afterwards he was a little bit sore, which he expected,” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said. “And then he played [yesterday], but he wasn’t really getting any better. You could kind of see him dragging it out there. But he tried to play through it. Chris is a tough guy. He’s a competitor. He wants to be out there, but we have to look at the big picture. We have to kind of protect Chris as well.”

The injury, which Paul sustained in the waning minutes of a Jan. 12 loss to the Orlando Magic when he bumped knees with J.J. Redick, has prevented him from playing in three of the previous five games. The Clippers won all three games Paul missed on last week’s road trip, but face their sternest test Tuesday with the Oklahoma City Thunder in town.

The Clippers (32-10) are within a half game of the Thunder (32-9) in their chase for the league’s best record and are riding a four-game home winning streak against the defending Western Conference champions. But they’ll have to do it without the league’s premier point guard in Paul.

Eric Bledsoe, who averaged 11.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.7 steals in three games starting in place of Paul, will face off against dynamic Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, who for the third consecutive season is expected to serve as a backup to Paul in February’s All-Star game. Westbrook is one of few guards in the league who can match Bledsoe’s athleticism.  

“They’re both as athletic as you’re going to find,” Del Negro said. “Russell is explosive. If you give him any kind of space he’s going to explode to the rim.”

Del Negro said the Clippers will rely on team defense as much as anything to try and curtail Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who’s the NBA’s second-leading scorer.

For the Thunder, the defensive philosophy, according to Westbrook and Head Coach Scott Brooks, will remain unchanged even without Paul.

“Nothing changes,” Westbrook said. “They’re a deep team. We still have to stick to our game plan.”

Paul’s absence will cost him a chance at retribution. In the Clippers’ previous matchup with Oklahoma City this season, the six-time All-Star went 2-for-14 from the field, committed four turnovers and missed a turnaround jumper over Westbrook that would have won the game at the fourth-quarter buzzer. Instead, it went to overtime and the Thunder prevailed, 117-111.

Paul solemnly put the Nov. 21 loss on himself, saying he couldn’t “throw the ball in the ocean.”

“We should have won that game,” Paul continued that night in Oklahoma City. “We know it. They know it. I think the frustrating part is we had an opportunity to win it. Regardless of what anybody says, it’s going to be hard for us to win a game if I play that bad. It’s tough because you work so hard and you know there are going to be nights like that.”

It sounded similar to what he uttered after the Clippers lost, 106-99, Monday at Golden State. Where despite wearing padded sleeves over both knees, Paul appeared to re-aggravate the injury when he collided with Jarrett Jack on a driving layup attempt in the first quarter.

He limped to the free throw line after making the layup over Jack, but would not convert another field goal. He finished 1-for-7, scoring a season-low four points. After the game, Del Negro praised Paul’s effort.

“Chris is trying to hobble out there a little bit,” Del Negro said. “It’s nice to have him out there because settles everything down. It’s just that he can’t play at the level he’s used to.”

But Paul, as he did in Oklahoma City, shook his head as he was seated in front of his locker; this time his knees wrapped in ice.  “I was trying to get through it. I sort of take this loss and put it on me because I feel like I hurt the team being out there and trying to play through it.”

Moving forward it will be about managing the injury until it heals.

“There’s no timetable right now,” Del Negro said. “He had an MRI last week when he did it. He won’t get another MRI. He’ll probably get some X-rays and things just to double-check everything. He’s just sore.

“It’s a pain tolerance thing. It’s a bruise on your kneecap and you have to be able to run and move and cut and jump and do things and it’s going to be sore for a while. He’s just go to work through it and we’ll get him a lot of therapy and when he’s ready, he’ll be ready.”