BREAKING NEWS
NATION

Clippers teammates step up as Chris Paul watches from sideline

Injured point guard Chris Paul leads from the sideline as Clippers beat Rockets, 117-101 in Game 1 of series

What's more amazing than the Clippers winning a playoff game with Chris Paul on one leg?

How about winning one with Chris Paul on his butt?

Two days after he carried them, they carried him. Two days after he limped them past the San Antonio Spurs, they danced without him against the Houston Rockets.

Two days after magic, there was madness, and if you still don't believe this team churning through its checkered past is for real, well, they just won with the surreal.

The Clippers dragged their drained, Spurs-scarred bodies into the Toyota Center here Monday night with their leader stuck to the bench wearing a green sport coat and nursing a strained left hamstring. Three hours later, they skipped out with a stunning 117-101 victory over the sluggish Rockets to steal the opener of their second-round series.

Paul didn't play, but he screamed and growled and cornered his replacements with pointed gestures. Paul never veered far from his seat next to Clippers assistant Sam Cassell, but his team responded to his absence so well, by the time the game ended, the emptying arena was so quiet one could actually hear one set of hands loudly clapping in front of the Clippers bench.

Yeah, it was Paul, who now has a new appreciation for the stress felt by Coach Doc Rivers.

"After the game, he said, 'I've never sweat so much in my life,'" said Rivers.

Probably neither have Clippers fans watching back home, as their team was attempting to take down the surging Rockets with the likes of Paul wannabes Austin Rivers and … Lester Hudson?

"You've heard me say it for two years now," Doc Rivers said with a grin. "We pay everybody."

And, it turns out, they pay them to do all kinds of things, which drove the Rockets all kinds of nuts on a night when all thousands of boos fell on Clippers shrugs and flapping signs were just empty cardboard.

They apparently pay Blake Griffin to play point guard, which he did brilliantly by replacing Paul with his second consecutive postseason triple-double — 26 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists. Griffin has played through his two poor fourth-quarter performances against the Spurs to emerge tougher and more versatile, his greatness growing by the day.

"Blake was just sensational," Rivers said. "We told all the guards, be aggressive scorers, let Blake be the facilitator … his vision is unbelievable."

They also apparently pay those other guards to fearlessly throw up shots, again and again. Austin Rivers, who started in place of Paul, scored 17 points amid pushes and shoves and tired "Daddy" chants. J.J. Redick also scored 17 with six off-balance buckets while Jamal Crawford scored his usual smooth 21.

Combined, the three guards made just 19 of 43 shots, but they were doing exactly as that other guard ordered. Yeah, it turns out, Paul led a halftime chorus in the locker room that encouraged the fellas to keep on firing.

"Shoot the ball, we're going to trust the pass," said the team's veteran leaders to their teammates, according to Rivers. "Whoever is open, shoot it and we don't care."

Meanwhile, the Clippers also apparently pay everyone to play defense, as the Rockets were knocked off balance and out of their comfort zones by missing 22 of 33 three-point attempts while James Harden, the league's second-leading scorer, managed just 20 points, seven under his average, while committing nine turnovers.

Those "M-V-P" chants that surrounded Harden all season? Not so much.

"Came out very lethargic," said the Rockets' Josh Smith. "We acted like this wasn't a playoff game."

While the Rockets' best player was stumbling all over the court, the Clippers' best player was leading just by sitting. This was the first game Paul missed after 89 consecutive starts this season, and it came just two days after his last-second shot gave them a Game 7 victory in the first round against the Spurs. He had injured his hamstring early in that game, and would have been pulled out if there wasn't so much at stake.

Given the opportunity to rest him in an opening game that most figured the exhausted Clippers might lose anyway, Rivers seized that chance and announced it early Monday evening.

"I just don't think the risk is worth it," Rivers said at the time. "I've had the injury, I don't like playing with it, it's just not worth it, because if you reinjure that, you're done, and to me, it's just not worth the risk."

Translated, the Clippers were saving him for when they trailed one-game-to-none entering an important Game 2. Well, um, guess what?

Paul could still return Wednesday, but, really, why so soon? The Clippers have already stolen home-court advantage. Why not rest Paul for one more game, giving him nearly a week of rest before Game 3 back at Staples Center? Heck, if the Rockets are really going to be this awful, Paul should play only occasionally during this series in hopes of getting stronger for what would be the Clippers' first trip to the conference finals, probably against rival Golden State.

Paul was unavailable for comment, undoubtedly not wanting to steal the thunder from his teammates, but Rivers understandably sounded confident in the other guys.

"We don't mention injured, we don't talk about it, we just tell our guys, 'You execute, you step into the role, and you play,'" said Rivers. "This team is a mentally tough team, they believe in each other, they play together, they trust each other."

Those words took on real meaning during the game-clinching sequence in a fourth quarter during which the Clippers outscored the Rockets by 10.

Matt Barnes hit a three-pointer from the right side for an eight-point lead, Jordan blocked Harden's shot at the other end, then Crawford raced down and sank a three-pointer from the left side. There was 5:20 remaining. The Rockets called time out. Paul hopped out of his seat and quickly limped to his teammates near center court, pounding them with his fists and laughing.

As he returned to the bench, Paul looked up into the stands, saw some Clippers fans, and raised his eyebrows in a gesture that spoke for a game.

Are you kidding me?

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
71°