Chris Paul returns from hamstring injury

Chris Paul Returns From Injury, Moves Into Top 10 In All-Time Assists

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SACRAMENTO – Friday night brought a welcome change for Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, and it wasn’t just the shift from rap music to James Brown in the postgame locker room he appreciated after a third straight win.

Point guard Chris Paul, who missed seven of the last eight Clippers game with a strained left hamstring, returned to the court and moved into the top 10 all-time in assists on the way to a 106-98 win.

“He is as tough a guy as I’ve ever been around,” Rivers said, comparing Paul’s toughness to that of former Celtics forward Kevin Garnett. “We’ve got some gritty dudes on our team. I think that’s going to show well later in the year.”

Paul knew exactly how many minutes he played, reciting “31 minutes, 26 seconds,” when asked postgame. And after those 31 minutes, 26 seconds, 14 points, 12 assists, six rebounds and three steals, he came out feeling fine, which was more important than any accolade or statistic.

“It feels great,” Paul said. “That’s a good thing. I don’t feel nothing…came out unscathed.”

Going into the night, Rivers was less concerned about a strict total minutes limit with Paul as he was making sure Paul didn’t play too many consecutive minutes. At nearly the six-minute mark in the first quarter, Rivers made sure to give Paul a breather.

But late in the game, the floor general was on the court when it mattered most. By then, Paul had already moved past Rod Strickland for No. 10 on the NBA’s all-time assists leaderboard and past Danny Manning for No. 6 on the Clippers’ all-time scoring leaderboard.

Paul joined Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and the NBA’s all-time leader in assists, John Stockton, as the only players in the top 10 in career assists and top 15 in career steals.

“That’s cool, it’s an honor,” Paul said. “It’s a privilege. For me, it’s crazy. I’m so competitive I think about all the game I missed because of injuries, but that’s an honor and a privilege. I think it says a lot about my teammates and my coaches that I’ve had over the years.”

There was a time that Paul, now at 7,994 career assists, set a goal to pass Stockton, who has nearly twice as many assists in his career (15,806) in both steals and assists.

That’s something he’s since given up on.

“No chance,” Paul said. “I missed 18 games my second year in the league with an ankle injury. That went out the window then.”

But Paul could certainly keep creeping up the all-time assists lists as the games and years go by, with Andre Miller’s 8,524 assists next up at No. 9. His head coach, who didn’t realize what Paul had accomplished in cracking the top 10, had little doubt that’ll happen after finding out about Paul’s accolade.

“That’s awesome,” Rivers said. “I didn’t know that. He’s still got a lot of years left. I got a feeling he’s going to keep going up. He’s one of the greatest passers ever. I think we already know that.”

The Kings know that, too, particularly after Paul dished his way to 12 assists in his return. The Clippers still utilized a three-guard starting lineup with Paul back, also starting J.J. Redick and Austin Rivers, who finished with a game-high 24 points after posting a season-high 28 points in his previous game.

With Paul back, it allowed the Clippers’ other guards to play fewer minutes, which meant saving up for gas for the end. The Clippers would need it, with the Kings hanging around in a back-and-forth finish.

Rivers said Paul’s rust after missing most of the last couple weeks was obvious (Paul uncharacteristically lost the ball out of bounds on a drive in the final minute with the Clippers up by two points). But the toughness, grit and poise Rivers mentioned from Paul was just as obvious.

“I wasn’t worried,” Paul said.

Before that turnover, it was Paul finding DeAndre Jordan for an and-1 finish, then getting to the line himself as the clock ticked under two minutes on the next possession. And after that turnover in the final minute, it was Paul getting his hand in along with Luc Mbah a Moute off a DeMarcus Cousins pass to come up with a steal.

“Got in there, collapsed on the defense,” Paul said. “You just get to the next play.”

After the steal, Paul was fouled and sealed the win with free throws. Rivers said it was Paul and the Clippers’ defensive plays down the stretch he thought made the difference, as they head back to Los Angeles with three straight wins to start 2017.

“We’re talented, we’ve got enough guys,” Paul said. “We’re going to win games, but for us, it’s bigger than that. We can go out…not trying to be funny, but winning 50 games, that’s easy. Not for everybody, but for us, that’s easy. But for us, its big picture. We’re trying to build for something bigger than that.”