While the Celtics have successfully initiated the process of moving on without point guard Rajon Rondo, who tore his right anterior cruciate ligament Jan. 25 in Atlanta, the absence of Chris Paul was another sobering dose of reality for the Los Angeles Clippers in their 106-104 loss to the Celtics on Sunday at TD Garden.
Playing their seventh consecutive game without Paul, who was spotted on the visitors’ bench dressed in jeans, a dark dress shirt, and a beige sport coat, the Clippers sorely missed their star point guard. They committed 15 turnovers for 21 points in a second-quarter stumble that left them facing a daunting 59-40 halftime deficit.
And yet, even without Paul, who has a bruised right kneecap, the Clippers still found a way to climb from that 19-point abyss to within 103-101 on Eric Bledsoe’s 3-pointer with 56.2 seconds left.
But Paul Pierce, who led the Celtics with 22 points, reserved his biggest shot of the game for the ensuing possession when he answered Bledsoe’s huge trey with one of his own with 2.5 seconds left, making it 106-101.
“Well, hey, players win games, that’s just the way it is, and coaches lose games,’’ said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, whose team won the first three games it played without Paul this season, but has seemingly become rudderless in losing five of the last seven games without him. “That’s the nature of the business and when you’ve got your top player out, it’s going to put pressure on everybody else.
“We’ve been in a lot of games, but we haven’t been able to close games out, and that’s what Chris is really good at, closing games out for us.’’
Bledsoe, who was installed as a starter, did his best to try to fill the void, scoring 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting while dishing out 10 assists to go along with 7 rebounds and 3 turnovers.
“Everybody knows that Chris is a big part of our team,’’ said Bledsoe, who drew his first start of the season Jan. 14 at Memphis and helped the Clippers score a 99-73 victory over the Grizzlies. “He’s just makes everything go so smoothly.’’
Without Paul of late, though, it’s been a jarring transition for the Clippers.
“We just have to play off one another like we did when he first got hurt,’’ Bledsoe said, referring to the three consecutive victories the Clippers cobbled over the Grizzlies, Rockets, and Timberwolves with Paul out of the lineup.
“So it’s going to come along and we’ve just got to stick with it and play our game.’’
The Clippers demolished the Celtics, 106-77, in their first meeting this season, Dec. 27 in Los Angeles.
And that was with Rondo at the point. But this time, with Rondo out of the mix, the Clippers found the Celtics even more difficult to defend.
The reason? Instead of focusing all their attention on stopping Rondo, who dominates the ball, the Clippers were forced to defend all five Celtics, who made it a point of emphasis to whip the ball around the court seemingly on every possession.
“It was definitely moving around,’’ said Jamal Crawford, who had 23 points off the Clippers bench. “It’s a little hard keying on guys. Pierce is going to get his, [Kevin] Garnett’s going to be a big part of what they do, but other guys are stepping up and that’s a credit to their team.’’
While Bledsoe and Crawford, who combined for 46 points, did all they could to step up, Paul proved he was truly indispensable to the Clippers, whose bench rotation and rhythm was disrupted by his absence.
“It’s going to be like that with Chris out,’’ said Blake Griffin, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds. “It kind of changes our dynamic. Jamal comes in a little bit earlier and is playing a little bit different role because he’s not in the game with Eric at the same time.
“That’s going to happen, but we’ve experienced it before and we’ve played well through it before, so that can’t be an excuse for us.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.