Of course, some of the talk is pure gamesmanship. While dribbling upcourt past the visitors’ bench, Paul has been known to tell an opposing coach that he’s already sniffed out the staff’s game strategy. And nobody works game officials like Paul, who can litigate a call like Clarence Darrow.
He directs almost all the talk at people, which makes sense because it is really just interpersonal communication. That's also what made it a little jarring when Paul yelled not at a person, but at the cosmos when he separated his shoulder in the third quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers’ win at Dallas last Friday. He was mad at the world. Confining him to the sideline when there’s work to be done? Absurd.
With Paul in street clothes, the Clippers have to hold their ground in a conference of juggernauts without their conductor, which means someone has to take over the controls. The team is only three games into Paul’s three-to-five-week stint on the shelf, but the Clippers’ two leading big men, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, appear ready. Combined, they don’t project the vocal intensity of Paul, but what they lack in volume they can make up in expression, verbal or otherwise.
Paul’s greatest asset is his ability to assert control, and over the past couple of games, Griffin has assumed the role. He’s now the guy pressuring the defense, with and without the ball. Even when the Boston Celtics were denying entries to Griffin in the second quarter of a tight game Wednesday night, they were expending a lot of energy and resources doing it. Griffin ultimately found more than 20 quality shots and was the primary playmaker in another 15 or so. The Clippers scored a ton of points on these possessions, and Griffin preoccupied the C’s off the ball.
With Paul out, Griffin becomes the Clippers’ best playmaker, and the offense can’t move the ball without his help. Griffin has always been a capable and willing passer, but over the past week he’s taken on this responsibility as a personal imperative. When perched at the high post, Griffin surveys. He watches the pieces move, identifies where his shooters are and where he can lead them. In the Clippers’ two recent victories, he logged 14 assists in 65 minutes.
During the course of Wednesday’s win over Boston, various Celtics yapped at Griffin. In the second half, he took a charge from Jordan Crawford, which led to the pair getting tangled up. Crawford snarled at him. Griffin smiled wryly, then cooly dismissed him. Crawford played well Wednesday, but Griffin’s message was almost Paulian: Welcome to my game. Enjoy your time here.
While Griffin has taken charge on the offensive end, Jordan been assigned the critical role of back-line director and he’s embraced it. He talks on pick-and-rolls and ranks 12th in points yielded per possession among big men who’ve defended at least 100 such plays. When manning the interior or the weak side, he monitors ball, assignment and space simultaneously. In past seasons he was good for maybe two of the three.
The Clippers’ rim defense still needs work (27th in opponents’ field goal percentage and 26th in field goals surrendered in the restricted area), but the overall scheme is beginning to work; the Clippers have the NBA’s fifth-most efficient defense since Dec. 1.
More than anything, there’s an entirely different aura around him this season. Jordan has always been among the league’s more affable, good-natured guys, yet a little goofy -- totally harmless and often charming, but gravitas it wasn’t. He was sensitive to bad press, even if it was petty. He’d sometimes get down on himself, and former coach Vinny Del Negro did no favors for his confidence.
But people in their mid-20s grow up, and as we enter 2014, Jordan has blossomed. He’s the same likable guy, but you can see hints of that gravitas. He’s a more buttoned-up presence on the court, where his movements are more precise and his voice is louder. Among players averaging greater than 20 minutes per game, Jordan ranks second in total rebounding rate and fifth in block rate. “He’s playing his ass off,” said one general manager recently.
Last season, the Clippers would often open a game by feeding Jordan on the low block. The intent was to coax Jordan into playing defense. But that’s a decidedly non-Riversish tactic.
Coach Doc Rivers told Jordan up front that he’d have no entry in the playbook. The 7-footer would get his share of lobs in transition if he ran the floor and a handful of duck-ins and putbacks, but his number would be called in only rare instances. Jordan’s duty is singular: Anchor the Clippers by becoming one of the five best interior defenders in the NBA. Scoring isn't part of the job description because team basketball is about working each player’s strengths, and Jordan has some impressive ones.
“This strategy is more realistic,” Jordan said after Thursday’s practice. “There’s no sugarcoating or -- I’m not going to say ‘mind games,’ but [Rivers] just tells me what my role is. ... With Doc, my role is defense and that’s how I’m going to be supereffective on the floor.”
Jordan no longer looks over his shoulder to the bench worrying about seeing a hook. In 35 games this season, he’s logged 236 fourth-quarter minutes. He played every game in 2012-13, yet saw only 149 minutes in the fourth quarter -- and didn't see any action in the final frame of 52 games.
“Doc knows how to reach people,” Jordan says. “He’s good. [chuckles]. He’s goooood. And not like a sneaky good. He knows how to relate. He knows how to connect with all of us on a different level. He understands that there are so many personalities. There are egos on every team, and he knows how to control all of that. It’s honesty.”
Jordan describes Rivers as a guy who will call him out -- loudly -- but that will be the extent of the repercussion. Rivers will reiterate the task, tell Jordan he’s capable of crushing it, then give him a pat on the butt.
Rivers hasn’t solved every riddle, not as Clippers coach or as vice president of basketball operations. He’ll admit as much. Asked on Monday if he had a grasp yet on how Paul’s absence would affect the Clippers’ style of play, Rivers confessed, “I don’t know yet, honestly.” He explained that the Clippers’ offense was predicated on finding things only Paul could see.
One can imagine the reaction to Del Negro if he suggested he didn’t have a full sense of how the Clippers would operate offensively without his point guard. Somehow Rivers’ uncertainty inspires confidence, as if his sincerity alone could pull the Clippers through until Paul returns.
The Clippers are likely to lose a couple of games they would’ve won were Paul on the court, but the team seems to have enough confidence and accountability -- and a manageable schedule -- to withstand a slide. J.J. Redick will be back on the court soon, possibly Friday, an addition that will allow the Clippers to reignite the movement in the offense. Paul will still be missed, but it’s no longer quiet in his absence.