There were only a few hours to exhale, even after the end of a breathless first-round playoff series.
The Clippers boarded their charter flight Sunday not knowing whether the point guard who had carried them past the San Antonio Spurs would be available in the opener of their Western Conference semifinal series against the Houston Rockets.
Chris Paul was officially listed as questionable for Game 1 on Monday night at the Toyota Center with the strained left hamstring that left him hobbled for the final 2 1/2 quarters of the Clippers’ 111-109 victory over the Spurs in Game 7.
The uncertainty placed an unusually large onus on a training staff that Paul has routinely described as the best in the NBA.
“I said it before, our training staff is amazing, the amount of people that we have day in and day out trying to make sure that we’re ready to play,” Paul said Saturday night after banking in an improbable running jumper over the Spurs’ Tim Duncan with one second left for the final points in a game that featured 31 lead changes and 16 ties. “We’re really about to see what they’re made of now since we’ve got a day and a half, I think, to get ready for Houston.”
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said after Game 7 that his best guess was that Paul, who played in all 82 regular-season games for the first time in his 10-year NBA career, would sit out the series opener.
Jamal Crawford would probably start at point guard if Paul were unable to play, with Austin Rivers and Lester Hudson available to handle the ball off the bench. Rivers said he was thankful he signed Hudson late in the season to give him an additional guard when he nearly went with a big man.
Rivers said he would attempt to compensate for fatigue and the possibility of being short-handed by using more players off his bench. Crawford, Glen Davis and Austin Rivers were the only reserves to play significant minutes against the Spurs in the first round.
Regardless of who plays, the Clippers said they would not change their approach against the rested Rockets, who have not played in nearly a week.
“We’re just going to trust the system like we did,” Griffin said Saturday. “When [Paul] was in the [locker room], we said, ‘Come on, we can’t feel sorry for ourselves, we’ve got to strap up and go. We’re going to trust our system just like any other game. Nobody is going to do it alone, but we need everybody.’ ”
The Rockets will also be somewhat undermanned with point guard Patrick Beverley (wrist) and forward Donatas Montiejunas (back) out after suffering season-ending injuries in late March.
The Clippers have dominated Houston in recent seasons, winning 11 of the last 14 games. But the Rockets won the final two games between the teams this season and center Dwight Howard did not play in any of the four games in the series this season.
The presence of Howard (a 52.8% free-throw shooter during the regular season) and Houston teammates Josh Smith (52.1%) and Terrence Jones (60.6%) could provide the Clippers with three counter options should the Rockets try to intentionally foul center DeAndre Jordan like the Spurs did throughout the first round.
Much of the Clippers defense will be focused on Howard and shooting guard James Harden, the most valuable player candidate who fared significantly worse against the Clippers this season than he did against the rest of the NBA. Harden averaged 20.0 points while shooting 35.8% overall and 24.0% from three-point range against the Clippers, well below his season averages of 27.4 points, 44.0% shooting and 37.5% on three-pointers.
Ultimately, the early games in the series may hinge on the availability and effectiveness of Paul, whose playoff pedigree with the Clippers (three series wins in four years) exceeds that of the Rockets since 1997 (two).