LOS ANGELES — The last time DeAndre Jordan missed a game, Barack Obama was in the middle of his first term, the Clippers were headed to the lottery for the fifth straight season under new coach Vinny Del Negro, and Chris Paul was plying his trade in New Orleans for a team still known as the Hornets.
Jordan’s league-leading Ironman streak of 360 consecutive games played, which dated back to March 2011, was snapped on Wednesday not by an injury, but by Pneumonia. The illness left the Clippers without both of their frontcourt fixtures, as Blake Griffin has already been sidelined since Christmas with a quadriceps tear, and it left Paul in totally unchartered waters. For the first time in his four-plus seasons with the Clippers, Paul took the court with someone other than Jordan as his starting center.
“Playing without DJ tonight was probably the weirdest thing ever,” Paul said, after the Clippers beat the Heat 104–90 in L.A. for their 10th straight victory. “My first game in a Clipper uniform without him. He doesn’t miss games. He just doesn’t.”
This was a nightmare scenario for the Clippers, one they narrowly avoided during Jordan’s free agency dalliance with the Mavericks last summer. On paper, L.A.’s frontcourt depth is lacking, and Jordan’s absence forced coach Doc Rivers to tap the minimum-salaried Cole Aldrich as his starter and reinsert Josh Smith into his regular rotation for the first time in weeks.
Wednesday’s matchup didn’t help matters, as Miami boasted versatile All-Star Chris Bosh and the hyper-athletic Hassan Whiteside in the middle. Initially, Rivers adjusted to Aldrich’s quickness disadvantage against Bosh by hiding his center on non-shooter Justise Winslow. As the game wore on, the Clippers realized Aldrich’s beefy frame posed problems for the Heat’s lighter frontline inside.
Paul milked Aldrich’s ability as a physical pick-and-roll finisher for all it was worth. There was, however, one obvious adjustment to be made when targeting the ground-bound Aldrich rather than the high-flying Jordan.
“Instead of the lobs, it’s the pocket passes,” Paul smirked.
Aldrich finished with 19 points, tied for the second-highest total in his career, and seven rebounds in 24 minutes. In his first start as a Clipper, he took 14 shots, nearly matching Jordan’s career-high of 15. The 27-year-old lottery-pick-turned-journeyman powered through Whiteside at times during the second half, helping the Clippers blitz to a 24–5 run to open the third quarter.
“[Aldrich] knows who he is,” Rivers said. “He has this body and he uses it. He doesn’t try to beat you athletically. He just gets his body in the right positions and he rolls to the right spots.”
In addition to Aldrich’s inside contributions, Rivers also got eight steals in just 15 minutes from backup guard Pablo Prigioni, whose thievery tied Sixers forward Robert Covington and Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio for the most steals in an NBA game this season. Paul, who finished with 15 points, 12 assists and six rebounds, did well to orchestrate the action as he led the Clippers to a ninth consecutive win without Griffin.
All things considered—the quality of the opponent, the Clippers’ struggles in big games this year, the streak, the 14-point margin of victory and the unprecedented dual absences of Jordan and Griffin—it would be fair to call this the signature win of the Clippers’ season.
Rivers, who looked ecstatic as he high-fived each of his players as they came off the court midway through the fourth quarter, praised his team’s composure after a slow start.
“When you can’t get anything going, it’s easy for you to start feeling sorry that you don’t have Blake and DJ,” he said. “Nobody mentioned it. They just kept playing.”
By beating the Heat, the Clippers completed just the fourth 10-game winning streak since the franchise relocated to California in 1978. Remarkably, all four have come during the Paul/Griffin/Jordan era. And while Paul’s first game without Jordan in L.A. came off about as well as could be expected, he spent most of his postgame press conference riffing about Jordan, whom he referred to as “Big fella.” He made a point to praise Jordan’s ability to draw defensive help defenders, his skills as a finisher, his willingness to set screens and his upbeat personality.
“It was odd [without him],” Paul said. “We’ve got so many different rituals before the game. DJ has a handshake with everybody. Everybody!”
Those routines, the nicknames, the lobs, the winning streaks—all were developed over years of uninterrupted play from Jordan. With the win in the books and a five-game road trip looming next week, Paul sounded, more than anything, like someone who was ready for his center’s next streak to begin as soon as possible.
“Don’t get it twisted,” Paul concluded. “This is not something we’re trying to get used to.”