Chris Paul pulled his right hand out of his pocket and looked intently at his thumb, almost as if he were trying to see beneath the skin.
The Clippers' point guard sprained his thumb Feb. 21, adding to what has become a maddening succession of injuries. The sprain came after he separated his right shoulder Jan. 3 and sat out 18 games, but before the groin tweak he felt March 10 and the left ankle he rolled last Monday.
"It's all right," he said of the thumb, though it probably isn't, at least not entirely.
Between the thumb, sore groin and ankle, Paul is taking a long time to get taped up before games these days.
"Feels like it," he said Thursday, "but I'm going to get through it, I guarantee you that."
Paul will push through it because that's his nature and because he knows the Clippers need him to lead them in perseverance even as he leads the NBA in assists, with an average of 10.9 per game. He's also a breath from leading the league in steals with an average of 2.44 through Wednesday's games, behind only Minnesota's Ricky Rubio's 2.45. He has led the NBA in assists twice and in steals five of the last six seasons.
While Blake Griffin has elevated his game and Coach Doc Rivers has brought credibility, calm and championship experience to a franchise that urgently needed all of those qualities, the Clippers' playoff fate still rests heavily on Paul and his ability to effectively overcome those nagging injuries.
Rivers joked that during games it's often tough to get Paul off the floor, "which is good," but that Paul might not feel quite so fine the next day in practice. Clearly, Rivers is keeping an eye on him.
"I worry sometimes that he's not forthright in his injuries, so you have to be careful with him," Rivers said. "I'm still learning the guys and he's one of those guys that you've just got to watch to make sure he's telling you the truth.
"You just worry about him because he plays a very physical guard game. He's not a finesse guard. He's a tough, physical guard. But he's not that big, and so you do worry about him."
Rivers' biggest worry?
"His hands," Rivers said. "It's funny. I worry about his hands more than anything, which haven't been hurt. But he's a reacher.… I look at him and worry about his hands, because without those you're not very good. He's always in there and reaching so you have some concern."
Maybe Paul hasn't been quite so forthright about the thumb. Or maybe he's simply determined to manage whatever discomfort he feels because that's what leaders do when they're most needed.
Jamal Crawford paid tribute to Paul's resolve by invoking some heavy hitters, including Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas.
"He's tough," Crawford said of Paul. "I guess in our game we all make comparisons and I don't want to jump too far but I think he's this generation's Isiah Thomas when it comes to toughness and leadership and doing whatever it takes to win, and moxie in that point guard position. There are so many similarities there.
"Isiah was one of a kind. Just like Kobe and MJ, I think there's not another MJ, but for this generation, Kobe is the closest we'll see. And I feel like that with CP and Isiah as well."
Paul was flattered by the comparison to Thomas.
"Isiah's one of the best to ever play and Isiah won a championship, so I'll take that one," he said.
Thomas actually won two championships, in 1988-89 and 1989-90. Paul hasn't gotten past the second round of the playoffs, nor have the Clippers since the franchise moved to the West Coast.
This season might be his and the Clippers' best shot to reach the promised land of the conference final — or beyond. They were 12-6 while his shoulder healed, a testament to their depth. And they made an impressive statement by reeling off 11 straight wins — before losing Monday at Denver — and regaining their grip on home-court advantage in the first round, which they were in danger of letting slip away.
"No time like the present," Paul said. "We know what we have, you know what I mean? I think at times, in years past, you may question this or question that. I think right now we know who we are. We know what type of team we are and we've just got to be that.
"We're a team, we have our principles. We don't fight. We're going to defend every night. Never settle for less."
Thumbs up to that, taped or otherwise.
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