Missed Opportunities Vs. Spurs Spoil Chris Paul’s Return
LOS ANGELES – Take off 14 games and more than a month of basketball, and certain aspects of the game that typically come second-nature may not look as crisp as normal.
Head coach Doc Rivers said before Friday’s game and the return of Chris Paul, who came back a week earlier than initially anticipated from a torn left thumb ligament, ball-handling is typically the hardest trait to return when a player misses a significant amount of time.
Even for a player with the handles of Paul, as the ball bounced off his foot and out of bounds early against the Spurs, it appeared that thought rang true, and Paul agreed.
“Ball-handling, playing with a splint,” Paul said, as he began to list the most challenging parts of the game to get back, before stopping himself short as his competitiveness took over. “It’s no excuses. I’m going to figure it out. I’m cool.”
Paul, returning five weeks after the start of his initial six-to-eight-week recovery timeframe from surgery, finished with 17 points, six rebounds and five assists in the 105-97 loss to the Spurs, using mostly his non-injured right hand to do what he always does. He stripped the ball twice to come up with two steals, including one that led to a transition bucket for Blake Griffin as the Clippers tried to overcome a fourth-quarter deficit against the Spurs.
Rivers said there were times where Paul’s time off was obvious, much in the same way as Griffin’s first game back from an 18-game hiatus following his knee surgery earlier this year.
“We were moving, but we just weren’t really in sync,” Rivers said. “You kind of knew that would happen a little bit.”
But Paul and the Clippers still had plenty of chances to earn their third win of the season against the Spurs. They just couldn’t finish off the opportunities presented to them.
“We did miss open shots, but we still didn’t play good offense,” Rivers said.
Not that Griffin thought that was Paul’s doing.
Even while it might take time to, as Griffin put it, “re-familiarize” with a player, Griffin said Paul’s style makes it simple to adjust to his return.
“He’s pretty easy to play with,” Griffin said. “It came down to the fight in the second half. We had a stretch of maybe five minutes or so, I don’t know how long it was total, that we didn’t execute the things we need to execute.”
Kawhi Leonard picked up his third foul early in the third quarter, yet it was that quarter when the Clippers watched their lead dwindle until the Spurs chipped away enough that they led heading to the fourth.
When the Clippers worked their way close again in the fourth, an untimely turnover (the Clippers committed 12, which the Spurs turned into 20 points) or a missed 3-pointer (the Clippers went 7-for-23 behind the arc, and sharpshooter J.J. Redick went 2-for-8 from 3-point range) prevented them from getting close enough to threaten San Antonio’s late advantage.
The Clippers never got within a possession of the Spurs’ lead in the fourth.
“It felt good to get through the whole game,” Paul said. “But we couldn’t get stops.”
Paul said he came out unscathed, but all that matters to him is how the Clippers did as a team. He did his best not to think about his injured thumb, and he was hoping it would take no time to regroup as he worked his way back.
Even with the loss – the Clippers’ second straight following the All-Star break – and even with the Clippers having missed Paul and Griffin for 20-plus games apiece this season, the Clippers still find themselves going back and forth with the Jazz for fourth place in the Western Conference.
As they “re-familiarize” themselves with Paul, that’s not the worst place to be.
“I would take it,” Rivers said before the game. “Listen, you look at the injuries and our record, I think there’s not a coach in the league that wouldn’t take our record right now, so that’s been all good. Would’ve been nicer to have them, but I think and I’m hoping that all this will mean something great for us later.”