Bernucca: Clippers Captain is Back, But the Ship Ran Just Fine Without CP3

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ChrisPaulSH1Chris Paul returned to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday.

We don’t want to be party-poopers, but it probably should be pointed out that the Clippers were better without him.

This does not mean that GM Gary Sacks should start exploring trade possibilities for a top-five player. And it doesn’t mean that coach Doc Rivers should go with the hot hand at point guard at the end of games.

But it does mean that if the Clippers want to win a championship this season – which is entirely within the realm of possibility – Paul has to reacclimate himself with his teammates more than they do to him.

The Clippers were 22-12 (.647) when Paul went down with a separated shoulder on Jan. 3 vs. Dallas. Counting that win – in which LA staged a stunning comeback from a seven-point deficit in the final four minutes – LA went 13-6 (.684) without their leader and floor general.

As it should have, much was made of Blake Griffin’s MVP-caliber play since Paul went down. Griffin has shown he can carry a team, averaging 27.5 points on 57 percent shooting with 10.9 free throw attempts and 8.5 rebounds. But he is not the only Clipper who dramatically elevated his play while Paul went deep into his wardrobe.

DeAndre Jordan had double-figure rebounds in all 19 games while collecting 13 double-doubles and averaging 11.4 points, 15.1 rebounds and 2.53 blocks. He shot nearly 70 percent from the field and was nearly 50 percent from the dreaded foul line.

In addition to being fourth in blocks, Jordan leads the NBA in both shooting and rebounds. Dwight Howard is the only active player to have done that for an entire season.

CrawfordJamal Crawford has averaged 21.7 points and 4.8 assists since Paul has been sidelined. Despite shooting under 42 percent from the field, he has made 124-of-136 free throws (.912) and is averaging 1.37 points per shot, a better number than Paul himself.

Crawford has done this while occasionally starting for the injured J.J. Redick and also taking on some of Paul’s point guard duties. With all due respect to colleague Jacob Eisenberg, the race for Sixth Man Award is over.

And Darren Collison has been nothing short of a savior in place of Paul at the point. He has filled the void with 13.6 points and 6.4 assists while shooting 48 percent from the field.

Collison also has been nearly automatic (59-of-65) from the line, has 2.75 assists per turnover and 0.64 steals per turnover, both top-15 numbers leaguewide.

Overall, the Clippers have been a better offensive team without Paul. They averaged 104.6 points with him and an unfathomable 109.5 points without him. Their scoring differential was 5.2 points with him and 6.1 points without him.

Where the Clippers really have missed Paul is on defense. When he played, LA surrendered 99.4 points. When he was sidelined, it gave up 103.4 points.

Rivers knows the Clippers have to become a better defensive team to make a serious run at the NBA championship. They have the rim protector in Jordan, a tough wing defender in Matt Barnes and not much else. Paul’s All-NBA defense at the top improves considerably their defensive posture.

Rivers can scheme around some of the individual holes in his defense. He did it in Boston, where he had Doc_Riversstrong individual defenders in Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins matched with matadors Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. And he can do it here, where his awesome offense can keep him in games until it’s time to get stretch stops.

Perhaps the smartest player in the NBA, Paul won’t spend the two games before the All-Star break imposing his offensive will upon the Clippers. But he does have to re-establish a rhythm with his teammates quickly because the upcoming schedule presents a challenge.

After collecting seven points and eight assists in Sunday’s 123-78 AAU win over the 76ers, Paul sounds like he knows exactly what he has to do.

“We’ve been playing extremely well and I didn’t want to break up our rhythm,” he said.

L.A. hosts Portland on Wednesday and San Antonio in its first game after the All-Star break before a three-game trip through Memphis, Oklahoma City and New Orleans, a trio of surging teams. The Clippers then host Houston and New Orleans before visiting Phoenix on March 4.

All of those games will impact the Western Conference standings. Depending on how quickly Paul can assimilate himself with his teammates who have done some heavy lifting of late, the Clippers could find themselves chasing one of the top two seeds. Or they could end up fighting to hold onto the fourth seed, which wouldn’t even assure them of a series on their dominant home court (22-4).

No one truly believes the Clippers are better without Paul. But the time is now for Paul to show how much better the Clippers are with him.

TRIVIA: Last week, Dirk Nowitzki became just the third player in NBA history to eclipse 26,000 points while playing with just one team. Who are the other two? Answer below.

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  1. Didn’t Karl Malone eclipse 26,000 with the Jazz? He had well over 30,000 points while with the Jazz before one season with the Lakers

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