Chris Paul’s thumb injury means all eyes are on Austin Rivers halfway through season

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com

Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr.com

A seven-game win streak has helped the Los Angeles Clippers tread water in the Western Conference this season, but rough waters lie ahead.

Chris Paul, the team’s nine-time All Star, is expected to miss about a month and a half as he recovers from a surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Paul injured the thumb in the second quarter of Monday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After jamming it while guarding Russell Westbrook, Paul immediately left the game and headed to the locker room. The initial diagnosis was a sprain, but on Tuesday, an additional test revealed a tear.

Paul is scheduled to have surgery to repair the ligament on Wednesday.

The injury comes just days after the veteran point guard missed seven games with a strained hamstring.

In the 36 games he’s played this year, Paul has been both consistent and efficient, leading the Clippers to a 29-14 record and the fourth seed in a competitive Western Conference. His 9.7 assists per game are fourth-most in the NBA and he’s balanced that number with 17.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game.

Now the Clippers, who went 2-5 in the games Paul missed, are tasked with staying afloat without their veteran leader.

Austin Rivers is expected to take over as the team’s starter at the point, though he isn’t nearly the playmaker Paul is.

Few players are.

But Rivers has shown in his career that he simply plays a different style of basketball than Paul, which will take a bit of adjusting to in the long run.

The Clippers usually lean on Paul’s exceptional passing abilities to work the ball around the floor, but Rivers tends to look more comfortable shooting than passing the rock.

A career backup, Rivers is averaging only 2.1 assists per game in his career. This season, in a career-high 26.3 minutes played per game, he is averaging 2.5.

If there is reason for optimism, it’s that Los Angeles is expected to get Blake Griffin back in the next few days, having played without him for nearly a month as he recovers from knee surgery.

Griffin has shown his importance to the Clippers as well and he, along with DeAndre Jordan, has helped shape Los Angeles’ frontcourt into one of the most exciting in the league.

With Paul gone, the two are missing the dynamic ring leader that has helped both of them average double digits in the scoring column.

That means all eyes are on Rivers and if he can orchestrate a talented team as the quarterback on the floor.

Ball movement will be key.

While Rivers has had occasions this season where he has put together six or seven assists in a game, he has had many more performances that have shown his focus was on scoring and not moving the ball.

On Saturday, in 31 minutes played, Rivers only contributed two assists to go with his 15 points.

On Jan. 6, he scored 24 points in 36 minutes but had only two assists. And on Dec. 28, he played 32 minutes, scored 22 points even while going 2-for-8 from beyond the arc — and had zero assists.

Paul’s ability to move the ball runs parallel with his leadership ability; for years he’s been able to get everyone involved on the floor and use everyone to their potential.

That’s not to say Rivers should suddenly become Paul in the next few weeks, but it’s certainly his job now to keep the Clippers moving and work everyone to their potential.

It’s his job to get everyone involved, not just himself. He has the ability to do it, it will be intriguing to see if he can.

The Clippers’ next game is Thursday night against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

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