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Griffin's return uncertain, but not his value

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Doc Rivers will always make the same joke when asked about an injured player on his team.

"Doc is just a nickname," he'll say. "I'm not a real doctor."

So asking him about the progress of injured players such as Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford is a futile effort filled with shoulder shrugs and head shakes.

After Rivers said there was an outside shot Griffin could return Sunday to play the against the Golden State Warriors, which would have been his first game back in four weeks, he admitted that Griffin was not as far along as he thought after having surgery to remove a staph infection in his right elbow.

"He's able to run," Rivers said. "Shooting, he's not doing much of that yet. We can't forget he had his arm in a cast for two weeks. And that's atrophy and everything else. I think it's really close, I do. But I don't want to say that and have him not come back for a month because it could be four days, it could be a month. I've never seen this, and I don't know the answer. As a coach, it's not one of those things you can plan for."

A team source said Griffin's conditioning and cardio are actually better than they were pre-infection and he is able to do most drills, but his right elbow is still not fully healed. The reason most staph infections take four to six weeks to return is the surgery site needs to completely heal first.

Griffin started shooting some this week but he probably needs a few more days before he can return. Rivers already has ruled Griffin out for Monday's game against Minnesota, and he's doubtful for the Clippers' two-game road trip against Oklahoma City and Dallas. The most likely date for his return is next Sunday's home game against the Rockets, which would be five weeks since he was initially sidelined.

Rivers said he doesn't necessarily have to see Griffin go through multiple practices before he feels comfortable playing him again. Once he is cleared, whenever that is, Rivers said he will play regardless of practice. That's probably a good thing considering how infrequently the Clippers have practiced this season.

"A guy at his level, if they say he can play, he'll play whether we practice or not," Rivers said. "I always prefer that we have a practice, but he doesn't have that type of injury. Once he's cleared and can play, it's not to test it out. It's more because they gave him clearance because of the infection."

Although Rivers had been hopeful Griffin could be back for Sunday's game against Golden State, he sat him out of practices on Friday and Saturday because he simply didn't look ready to return and didn't even board the team's flight to San Francisco for the game.

Griffin likely will be back before Crawford, Rivers said, which is a big reason the team felt the need to sign Nate Robinson to a 10-day contract on Saturday. Crawford has a right calf contusion and the same injury in his left calf sidelined him for almost three weeks last season. Winning without Griffin was already hard enough, but trying to stay afloat without Griffin and Crawford has proven to be a little too much to handle over the past two games.

"I don't know if we're wearing down," Rivers said. "It's Blake and Jamal. When we only have one guy [injured], no matter who it is, we can find a way. When you have two, it makes it harder, especially when the second is a guy like Jamal. Having said that, we still have to find a way. You just got to. We've proven we can play with teams with Jamal and Blake out. But what we haven't done is won without them yet. In the game the other night [against Portland], we clearly had a chance and should've won, but didn't. Tonight we really didn't have a chance."

The Clippers are the fifth seed in the Western Conference but just a half game out of the seventh seed and a brutal first-round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies. They began the season with hopes of winning the division for a third straight year and claiming home-court advantage for the first time but that along with the hope of winning 60 games for the first time died a while ago. At this point, they're just trying to stay in the No. 3 to 6 range of the West seeding, which would give them Houston, Portland or Dallas in the first round. The Clippers are a combined 6-2 this season against those teams with their two losses coming while Griffin was sidelined.

After surviving and actually moving up in the standings without Griffin initially, winning four straight and seven of nine, the Clippers have plateaued and are just 7-5 without their star forward following two straight losses. They realize they're going to have to get him back soon if they are going to finish the season strong and do anything worthwhile in the playoffs, regardless of who they play.

"Well, we know [Griffin and Crawford] will be back soon and we know they'll be back and healthy before the playoffs, which is the big picture," guard Austin Rivers said. "Right now we don't have that many games left. We just have to continue to do what we've done. We've played well without them, we've won games, we're still moving up and we've got to keep doing what we're doing. Once we get them back, we've got to make that run. So we've got to keep building and learning from our mistakes."