When LA Clippers guard Chris Paul hurt his hamstring in Game 7 of the first-round series against San Antonio, things looked bad for the Clippers: they’d just lost their best player in their biggest game of the year. In the end, of course, it did not turn out that way: Paul stayed in the game and hit the game-winning shot as time expired. It was a pretty good story.
That was two games ago and as the second-round series between the Clippers and the Houston Rockets moves to Los Angeles, Paul hasn’t played a second since banking in the winner on Saturday night. The most striking thing about this series is how good LA looks without him.
Don’t get me wrong; Los Angeles could absolutely use Paul back. But in his absence, we’ve seen Blake Griffin hit a new level. It started with a triple-double against the Spurs in Game 7, but it’s improved from there. In Game 1, Griffin finished with 26 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists. The Clippers won, 117-101.
Remember when the Clippers were Lob City? In the second quarter on Wednesday evening, those early dunk-tastic days were back, and with new wrinkles an enhanced skillset. Griffin’s ability as a lob passer have might even started to outweigh his ability to finish them, as Griffin-to-DeAndre Jordan has been the most effective passing duo throughout the playoffs. Griffin, the facilitator! Strange waters, indeed.
At halftime on Wednesday, things looked weird. The Clippers were leading by nine, Griffin was playing like a point guard and Houston’s James Harden was hardly a factor at all: he’d only hit one basket in the second quarter and had 12 points. During the halftime segment on TNT, Charles Barkley reminded viewers how two weeks ago, Harden was a serious MVP candidate.
But in the second half, the Clippers went ice-cold and Houston rocketed back into the game. What happened? Had Houston’s defense cracked the Clippers? Or had the Clippers felt the shockwave created by Shaq after he tripped on a wire and crashed to the ground during halftime? (No, it probably wasn’t that.)
By the fourth quarter, things were getting really weird. Intentional fouling had stalled the pace of play and the game was hitting its third hour. Then the shot clocks gave out, forcing arena officials to set up old school clocks under the basket. The Rockets went on a 12-2 run and took the lead in the fourth’s opening minutes and we had ourselves a ball game, folks. A long, disjointed never-ending basketball game.
In the fourth quarter, Harden found his stroke, hitting shots and penetrating the defense almost at will. He was getting to the line, hitting threes and scored 16 points in the fourth alone.
But the game remained close down the stretch, thanks to Austin Rivers. With Jordan on the bench, Rivers started hitting shots. At one point, he scored two quick baskets to cut Houston’s lead to five and assisted on a Matt Barnes shot that cut the lead to four with about 90 seconds left.
Let’s set the scene: there’s a little under a minute left, the Clippers held the ball and are down by four. Rivers, driving to the basket one-on-one on an opportunistic fast break, slipped and lost his balance. As he stretched out onto the floor, he lost control of the ball and turned it over. Had he hung on and completed the behind-the-back dribbles, months of vitriol against the son of the coach would have flung back in the face of the entire Internet. But he failed, tremendously. Houston hung on, winning 115-109.
It was a weird finish to the weirdest game of the weirdest series so far. After two games, who could’ve predicted the Paul-less Clippers would’ve split two games against Houston? Who could’ve predicted Griffin would find a new gear? And, most importantly, who’d have thought Shaq would’ve wiped out on national TV? Strange times, especially since I thought Austin was Texas’ weirdest city.
Back in California on Friday night, a two-headed beast in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will come together, each crashing the ceiling of expectation for the 2014-15 Clippers, achieving such rampant success both because of and in spite of each other.