During the Lakers last meeting against the Clippers in early January, Chris Paul scored 18 of his 30 points during the second half – 11 coming in the fourth quarter – to help his team escape with a 107-102 victory.
“He’s very smart and very crafty,” Kobe Bryant said postgame. “To his credit, he made some pretty tough shots … Superstar players do that.”
Both L.A. squads, at that point, were headed in different directions. The Clippers were fresh off a franchise-record 17-game winning streak, while the Lakers were struggling to reach .500.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Bryant acknowledged.
Much has changed in the last month-and-a-half, though.
The purple and gold have won eight of their last 11, while the Clippers have lost eight of their last 13. Paul, however, has been absent in nine of those games, sidelined with a bruised right kneecap.
“Without him, they’re a completely different team,” coach Mike D’Antoni said after Wednesday’s practice.
That much is evident, according to the statistics. In 12 games without their floor general, the Clippers are a .500 ballclub, boasting a 6-6 record. But their offense, more than anything, suffers without their starting point guard.
In 42 games with Paul in the starting lineup, the Clippers are averaging 101.4 points per game on 47.6 percent from the floor. In the 12 games without him, those numbers drop to 94.7 and 45.9, respectively.
“It starts with his competitive fire, his ability to engage guys, being a great teammate and all that,” D’Antoni said. “That’s one, and two, his unselfishness and he’s unbelievably skilled – his vision of the court, and defensively, he’s all over the ball. There are a lot of great things he does. He’s just an unbelievable basketball player.”
Not only is Paul key in the Clippers’ success, but their bench play has been an integral part in the team’s play this season.
Jamal Crawford, a candidate for the 6th Man of the Year award, is tied for the league’s lead among bench scorers at 17.1 points per game and spearheads a second unit that also boasts Eric Bledsoe (9.8 points, 3.3 assists), Matt Barnes (10.4 points, 4.8 rebounds) and Lamar Odom (3.8 points, 5.9 rebounds).
“(Their bench) is deep, but you can only play five at a time,” D’Antoni said. “The five guys we have on the floor are playing well, so we can matchup.”
Even after losing Jordan Hill to hip surgery and Pau Gasol to a tear in his plantar fascia, D’Antoni has rotated Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison off the bench. All three have had particularly strong outings of late.
Jamison recorded 19 points and 10 rebounds against Phoenix on Tuesday night, Meeks has converted on 9 of his last 20 shots from the 3-point line and Blake has given the Lakers an edge on the defensive side of the ball.
“He’s played well the last three games after hitting a kind of rough spot on the road trip,” D’Antoni said of Blake. “His defense, his knowledge of the defense and being able to spearhead the second group (has been important). To me, him, Meeks and Jamison won the game for us (against Phoenix).”
Now with the Lakers starting to play better on both sides of the ball in the last couple weeks, the players understand the significance of Thursday’s nationally televised game against their co-tenants, who currently sit in third place in the Western Conference.
“It’ll be a great test for us,” Steve Nash said. “Obviously, they’re having a good year. With Chris back and healthy, they’re a different team. It will be a great challenge for us.”