LOS ANGELES (AP) - Chris Paul and the rest of the Los Angeles Clippers were thrilled to have Chauncey Billups back on the bench with them - albeit with a single crutch and walking boot.
His return, and Paul's 12 points in the final 2:42 gave them the lift they needed to get a much-needed victory from the Houston Rockets.
Paul finished with 23 points, including a go-ahead layup with 24.6 seconds left, leading the Clippers to a 95-91 win on Saturday and putting them within 2 1/2 games of the idle Lakers in the race for first place in the Pacific Division.
One of the happiest Clippers after the win was Billups.
Billups returned to Staples Center for the first time since undergoing season-ending surgery on Feb. 15 to have his torn Achilles tendon repaired.
``It was great,' Paul said. ``Chauncey's a guy I've been talking to every day, even when he's not here. So it's a lot better now to have him on the bench with me. I wish he would take that boot off and start playing again. We can use him.'
Billups described the day as ``bittersweet,' adding: ``I would just like to be walking in and putting my jersey on, of course, going out there and fighting with the guys. Obviously, I can't do that. But on the flip side, it's just really good to see the guys and see them just as happy to see me as I am to see them. I'm just happy to be back in the loop.'
Blake Griffin had 18 points and eight rebounds before fouling out with 4.9 seconds remaining. Randy Foye, who has been starting at shooting guard since Billups' injury, added 15 points in what could be his last start because of the acquisition of Nick Young on Thursday from Washington.
Courtney Lee led Houston with a season-high 25 points despite a strained tendon in the middle finger of his left hand. Chase Budinger added 19 points, and Goran Dragic had 14 assists and 11 points.
``It was definitely a winnable game for us down the stretch,' Budinger said. ``Our main thing was that we couldn't get stops in the last three minutes. Chris had a lot to do with it. He was definitely creating, getting to the free throw line, and we just didn't have an answer for him.'
With his team down six after Patrick Patterson's baseline hook shot with 2:57 to play, Paul hit a 16-footer and made four free throws to tie the score at 87. Patterson, who finished with 14 points off the bench, made two foul shots before Paul answered with a short jumper in the lane.
``It was a grind-out win for us,' coach Vinny Del Negro said. ``We had to make plays down the stretch because we didn't shoot the ball well, which put a lot of pressure on us. Chris made some big plays. That's what star players in the league do. And we did a good job of not turning it over.'
Patterson then missed a 14-footer from the left baseline, and Paul's layup put the Clippers ahead to stay at 91-89.
The All-Star point guard then stole the ball from Dragic on the Rockets' next possession and Foye made two free throws at the other end.
Budinger and Lee both missed 3-point shots in the final 8 seconds and Paul sealed the win with a pair from the line with 3.6 seconds to go.
``We got stops when we needed to, we got our in transition and we showed what we're really like when we push the tempo,' Paul said. ``We're really hard to defend when we get like that, because it gets Blake on the move and we get a chance to find our shooters. That's the way we need to play.
``When we walk into the screen-and-roll, the other teams needs to know that I'm going to be aggressive. They can corral me and trap me and not let me go anywhere. But when we are on the move like that, it's almost impossible for those bigs to keep me out of the lane.'
Trailing by as many as 14 points in the second quarter, Los Angeles tied the score at 56 with a 17-5 run capped by Paul's short jumper with 5:52 left in the third.
The Clippers held a 14-0 advantage in second-chance points until Budinger got an offensive rebound of Lee's missed 3-pointer, and Dragic made two free throws following a shooting foul by DeAndre Jordan with 4:28 left in the quarter.
``They made adjustments on how we were guarding them,' Lee said. ``They ran a lot of high pick-and-rolls, and Chris Paul was able to get in the paint and orchestrate their offense.'
Neither of the players Houston acquired at the trade deadline were in uniform. Marcus Camby was on the inactive list because the other players he was traded to Portland for - Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet - hadn't joined the Trail Blazers yet.
The Rockets are expected to buy out the $3.4 million player option for next season that is remaining on Derek Fisher's contract with the Lakers. Fisher played in 537 consecutive games prior to the trade.
``He's not here. If he was here he'd play,' coach Kevin McHale told reporters before the game. ``I haven't seen him yet. ``I have not talked to him.'
Notes: Young, obtained by the Clippers on Thursday from Washington in a three-way trade with Denver, had an introductory pregame news conference. ``It's a great feeling, coming back to family and playing for a great team,' said the former USC star, who was born in Los Angeles. ``You can't wish for nothing better than that. It's a dream come true. The organization wanted me and they traded for me, so I feel like I'm a part of this team already. It's a great fit. Playing in the backcourt with Chris Paul and alongside players like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, it's a great opportunity and something I wanted.'
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved