LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Clippers center Chris Kaman surprised some people -- OK, a lot of people -- when he returned, just before the All-Star break, from an ankle injury that had kept him sidelined for all but 10 of the team's first 55 games.
But that was just the start of his comeback trail. Kaman played only 10 minutes and scored only four points in his return, a road win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. After the All-Star break, the 28-year-old center has put together three consecutive double-digit scoring games and started to supplant DeAndre Jordan as Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro's end-of-game center of choice.
In Saturday's 99-92 loss to the Boston Celtics at Staples Center, Kaman scored 16 points and had nine rebounds, three blocks and three assists in 27 minutes, all highs since he returned to the court earlier this month.
"He got into a bit of a flow tonight," Del Negro said Saturday, recounting some of Kaman's core statistics during his postgame news conference. "He shot it better tonight and he got some off the glass for us.
"It's nice to have him out there. He gives us a different dimension."
Kaman had his bad sequences in Saturday's game, as usual, like the broken play three minutes into the second half where he was double-teamed and promptly lost the ball to Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo for an easy basket the other way. But, for the most part, Kaman's on-court energy and smooth shooting -- 8-for-12 on the night -- palpably masked some of his common mistakes.
Take, for example, his near-turnover on the final possession of the first half where he almost gave the ball back to Boston. After point guard Eric Bledsoe got ahold of a loose ball and threw up a desperation 3-point attempt, Kaman recovered to get the rebound and fight for another, leading to Blake Griffin's going to the free throw line to make the margin seven at the half. Before that, Kaman ended the first quarter with a vicious one-minute sequence that included two blocks, two rebounds and a layup.
And, in the second half, he got right up off the bench just 26 seconds into the third quarter, when Jordan came off with his fourth foul, and played seven full minutes. When Kaman returned two minutes into the fourth, he immediately took the ball right at the Celtics' biggest new acquisition, 7-footer Nenad Krstic, and burned him for an easy layup. Minutes later, he made a smooth 16-footer over Glen Davis to flash back to his fully-healthy days. And two minutes after that, he nailed a five-foot running hook off an on-target pass from Bledsoe.
Kaman said the hook shot made him think back to himself at his peak.
"I don't even know where I was at," Kaman said. "I haven't played much this year. I've just been out so long, you almost forget what you're good at. You just try to feel your way back, try to be patient, not force things and take my time and not turn the basketball over."
Kaman's injury, suffered two weeks into the season during a road loss to the New Orleans Hornets, started out as one of those day-to-day deals but escalated in extent over time when the Clippers' training staff realized the injury didn't immediately heal. He made a mini-attempt at coming back in early December, playing 13 minutes in two straight road games, then sat out the next two months with what was termed an aggravated bone bruise and deltoid ligament sprain of his left ankle.
He was clearly frustrated throughout that stretch, in and out of rehab sessions and trying to stay around the team. It was rumored the Clippers would try to trade him for a younger piece and some cap relief at various points this season, and Del Negro admitted the Clips were looking into it in early February. But a trade never materialized, and Kaman will stay in L.A. at least until the summer, when his contract, which expires at the end of the 2011-2012 season, will start to take on more value.
In the meantime, he has a lot of ground to make up to match his numbers from a season ago, when he averaged 18.5 points and 9.2 rebounds as the Clippers' No. 2 scorer and earned an All-Star nod for the first time.
"First things first is to get my defense where it needs to be," Kaman said. "My coverages are all off and I'm still learning because I haven't really had much time with these guys.
"And now the new guys are coming in with the trade and everything so it's going to be an interesting experience when Eric Gordon gets back, as well."
Clippers guard Randy Foye, who led all scorers Saturday with 32 points, said Kaman's progress is more than on par considering the circumstances. Foye missed most of a month and a half because of a wrist injury at the start of the season -- his second-longest injured stint as a pro -- and found the coming-back process quite difficult.
Kaman essentially missed double the time Foye did -- three months.
"When I sat out, I sat out for six weeks and I struggled, I really struggled when I first came back," Foye said. "A lot of the shots I was taking, people were looking at me like, 'Why is he taking those shots?' But now, as my legs come back and my conditioning and everything is in place, I don't have that anymore.
"So, yeah, I know what he's going through."
Kaman has a positive outlook on his return, audibly. But, as has been his M.O. throughout his eight-year career when it comes to injuries, he has also taken a wait-and-see approach at the same time.
"It's kind of a feel thing," said Kaman, adding that he's about seven pounds heavier than his listed weight of 265 pounds and feels out of shape. "I feel good, I feel comfortable. But, at the same time, I don't want to overdo anything, you know? It's tough to work yourself back in and play and do all the workouts and everything. There's a lot going on there that not everyone understands.
"But I'm trying to do everything I can to get back out there and be the player I was."