He looked great. We plan on playing him.
Paul hasn't taken the court yet of course, but assuming that he does indeed return, lets take a quick look at the details of his absence.
Paul was injured during the third quarter of the Clippers' game against the Mavericks in Dallas on January 3rd. A return on February 9th would be 39 days later, or just shy of six weeks. When the degree of Paul's separated shoulder injury was officially diagnosed on January 6th the recovery period was estimated to be six weeks. Whether that was six weeks from the initial injury or six weeks from the diagnosis is unclear. Regardless, we can say that Paul is returning a little ahead of schedule.
The Clippers have played 18 games since Paul's injury, not counting the Dallas game itself. They are 12-6 in those 18 games. They also beat Sacramento earlier in the season when Paul sat out with a sore hamstring, making them 13-6 in all games they've played without Paul this season. They are 22-12 in games played with Paul, giving them a slightly better winning percentage in games played without CP3 -- but the schedule has had much to do with that.
During the 18 games of his shoulder injury, the Clippers were:
- 7-1 at home;
- 5-5 on the road;
- 9-1 against teams with losing records;
- 3-5 against teams with winning records (they also have wins at Chicago and at Washington, teams who are hovering around .500).
Basically, they have more or less beaten the teams they were supposed to beat and lost to the teams they were supposed to lose to. Three of the six losses came against top teams on the road on the second day of a back-to-back; one road loss was at the buzzer; the only home loss came against the defending champion Heat when the Clippers played without their starting backcourt as both Paul and J.J. Redick missed the game. There is arguably only one 'bad' loss in the entire sequence, at Charlotte on Jan. 22. On the other hand, there aren't a who lot of great wins either: Dallas, at Toronto, at Chicago, at Washington are good wins.
When Paul was hurt, the Clippers were fourth in the West, three games behind third place San Antonio. They were first in the Pacific Division, one game ahead of the Golden State Warriors. They are still fourth in the West and first in the Pacific. During Paul's absence, they actually gained ground on most of their rivals: they gained 2.5 games on both the Warriors and the Blazers, a half game on the Spurs. They lost ground to the red hot Thunder, and they lost a half game to the Houston Rockets who are now the closest rival for the fourth spot in the West. Overall, they are closer to third place in the West and closer to second place in the West, and more solidly in first place in the Pacific. That's all in stark contrast to the sentiment when Paul first went down that the Clippers would surely drop into second in the Pacific and might possibly fall out of the top eight in the West.
Even when Paul returns, the Clippers may not be at full strength right away. Rivers is not expecting Redick to play against the Sixers, though he has not ruled it out. The Clippers are moving toward full strength -- but they're not there yet.
Paul has been named to the Western Conference All Star team, and with the game being held in his original NBA home of New Orleans, he has a strong desire to play. In order to do so, he must return to regular season action first. There are only two Clippers games left before the ASG, Sunday and Wednesday against the Trail Blazers, so if the ASG in NOLA remains a goal for Paul, he must return no later than Wednesday.
The Sixers are one of the worst teams in the NBA, and the Clippers should handle them easily at home, without or without Paul or Redick or Hedo Turkoglu or pretty much anyone else. In that sense, it could be a very good tuneup for Paul with relatively low pressure. On the other hand, the Portland game on Wednesday is huge. The Clippers will be keen to avenge an overtime loss in Portland the day after Christmas, not to mention that the Blazers currently sit a game and a half ahead of the Clippers in the Western Conference standings. With Portland scheduled to play at Minnesota tonight and at Oklahoma City on Tuesday, it's a very real possibility that the Clippers could tie or pass them in the standings with a win on Wednesday.
When Paul and Redick are both back in action, we will probably see a Clippers starting lineup for the first time that will more than likely finish the season at the top unit. Between injuries to Matt Barnes, Redick and Paul, those three have only played eight out of 53 games together this season. In those eight games Barnes came off the bench, partly because he had been hurt and was still less than fully healthy. It remains to be seen whether Doc Rivers continues with Barnes as the starter at small forward over Jared Dudley, but I have seen no indication to the contrary.
Beyond the healthy availability of their best starting lineup, there are other very specific reasons to suspect that the Clippers could be better -- perhaps even much better -- when Paul returns than they have been at any time this season. During the first three weeks of the season (before Barnes was hurt and before Redick was hurt) the Clippers were the worst defensive team in the NBA as they were struggling to master Rivers' defensive schemes. The defense still leaves much to be desired -- but it is lightyears ahead of where it was in November. In addition, life without Paul has allowed Blake Griffin to take the long-awaited next step. The Clippers had become too dependent on Paul in some situations -- but the way Griffin and Jamal Crawford and Redick played in his absence, this is not a team that is going to stand around and watch CP3 at the end of games. Few teams in the NBA have as many weapons as the Clippers, and the past month has given some other players the confidence they'll need to be factors in big situations moving forward.
The wait is over. CP3 is back. And the rest of the NBA should be very concerned.