Clippers point guard Chris Paul scored just three points in the 111-89 loss… (David Santiago / Associated…)
MIAMI — The Clipper wearing No. 3 lost the ball, his lone recourse to grab Mario Chalmers for a clear-path foul with LeBron James already awaiting a fastbreak dunk.
The Clipper wearing No. 3 spun around Shane Battier only to barrel into Udonis Haslem for an offensive foul.
The Clipper wearing No. 3 juked out Chalmers twice before missing a pull-up jumper.
About the only moment when the Clipper dressed in the team's most revered jersey resembled Chris Paul on Friday night at AmericanAirlines Arena was during a fiery exchange with an official in the third quarter, the star point guard contending he had been fouled by James while reaching for an outlet pass.
And that didn't go so well either, Paul receiving a technical foul after getting in the official's face.
Paul returned from a nine-game absence caused by a bruised right kneecap only to vanish for most of his 19 minutes during the Clippers' 111-89 loss to the Miami Heat.
"In these games," Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro said, "your top players have to play at a high level."
Paul barely registered a peep.
He scored a season-low three points, missing four of five shots.
He failed to make a steal after collecting at least one in 50 consecutive games.
He committed more turnovers (three) than assists (two) for the first time this season.
Perhaps most uncharacteristic of all, the Clippers' MVP didn't seem the least bit agitated after going MIA.
"I'm actually excited, you know what I mean?" Paul said after reporting that his knee felt fine. "Just that we're back on the court. For us, it's not about this game. It is what it is. We would have loved to win, but it's more about seeing what our team is about."
Well, if this was any indication of what's in store now that Paul, Chauncey Billups and Blake Griffin are back in the starting lineup, look out below in the Western Conference standings. The Clippers are headed in your direction.
It's true that the Clippers didn't really need to win this game. They were re-integrating a handful of players into their lineup, several with minute limitations, on the road against the NBA's defending champions.
But being competitive would have been nice, particularly with Miami missing Chris Bosh and Ray Allen.
Instead, the Clippers played as if they were the ones short-handed, letting the Heat shoot one open three-pointer after another.
"Part of it is they never really felt us" defensively, Paul said. "We have to do a better job of impacting the ball, all of us. We have to bump guys who are rolling. LeBron is in a rocking chair. He's dancing with the ball, doing all that stuff. It's more on us."
Paul also struggled offensively, unable to find any sort of rhythm with his passing or shooting. He played only 4 minutes 25 seconds in the first quarter before going to the bench with two fouls.
He missed all three of his shots in the second quarter, when the Heat turned an expected showdown into another MVP showcase for James, who finished with 30 points on nine-for-11 shooting.
Brilliant for so much of this season, Paul seemed especially dull by comparison.
"In games like this," Del Negro said, "he's got to take control of the game, and physically right now he's just not capable of doing that."
Paul was adept at staring down an official after his run-in with James in the third quarter, refusing to back down again when asked about it later.
"I felt like I got fouled," Paul said. "I'm going to take a tech."
Griffin compounded the situation by receiving a technical while he stood on the free-throw line, though it hardly mattered by then.
Paul did not play in the fourth quarter.
"I wanted to go back in the game, but this is a process," he said. "This wasn't Game 7 of the Finals. It's a marathon for us, not a sprint."
Maybe not. But for one rainy night in South Beach, it was a false start for the Clippers' best player.