There he was in plain sight, doing what he’s been doing his entire career: playing basketball, the only way he knows how. He executed pick-n-rolls to perfection, dished dimes that demonstrated unbound court vision and masterfully dictated the tempo of a game which could yet prove crucial in this enthralling, albeit surprising first-round series. He overcame the behemoths of blue and gold time and again, nailing floaters, sinking contested jumpers and skying for rebounds, proving once again that desire is the greatest equalizer for the undersized and the overmatched.
On the back of a historic Game 4 performance that resulted in a victory over the gargantuan Lakers, Chris Paul was asked to assess his own performance. In his own words, he was “just being me (himself)”. It was an honest answer to a point-blank question. But it utterly downplays the herculean effort that Paul gave on court and begets, amongst others, this one question: how did we ever forget about this diminutive dynamo?
As Rob Mahoney has brilliantly discussed, basketball fans should be in the mood of appreciating instead of ceaseless comparing. However, I feel compelled to make several comparisons, all in an attempt to comprehend the underappreciated greatness of one Chris Paul.
The Purists’ Dream:
In the spring of 2008, a transcendent point guard transformed a middling team into a legitimate playoff contender. That year, the Hornets took a crucial 3-2 series lead over the San Antonio Spurs before succumbing to their veteran savvy and one masterstroke adjustment: Assigning the task of containing Chris Paul to defensive stopper Bruce Bowen. Yes, as with most superstars you do not stop them, you can merely contain them. But as CP3 goes, so do the Hornets. Paul was hounded, stifled and his influence ultimately waned as the Hornets fell in seven games.
Why did I bring this up? Because that was the year Chris Paul attained nationwide recognition, contended for MVP and became the media’s new darling. Between then and now, Paul has been consistently great (both by observation and in the numbers), but his throwback style has been overshadowed by his flashier and more athletic counterparts. The uber-athletic Derrick Rose, he of twisting layups and explosive leaping ability. Likewise, Russell “I cannot stand still” Westbrook dazzling the world with his reckless forays, hyperkinetic efforts and general all-round (over)exuberance. And those are just two of the many out there.
In an era where score-first points are aplenty — Rose, Westbrook, Parker, Williams (He was a primary scoring option this season) — Chris Paul is truly a gift to the purists. For all his speed and guile, he plays a methodical game of milliseconds. His ability to make the right decision under duress is unparalleled, and this ability is exceptionally profound when he works the two man game.
Coming of a screen, he knows exactly when to hit the big man on a roll, when to kick to the big man ‘popping’ and when to penetrate. As I like to say, some players run pick-n-roll sets or plays; Chris Paul is a pick-n-roll play.
He is not as explosive as Rose but he has a deadly, deadly change of pace, one which still bewilders elite rim-protectors now and again. When the team switches on the play, he won’t hesitate to call an audible and “go to work” (read: embarrass) against his glacial-footed opponents. Ball handlers — point guards, point forwards and anything in between — execute the pick-n-roll. CP3 executes the Pick-n-Paul (Yes, I just coined that term).
But Chris Paul is much more than a pick-n-roll practitioner; he is one of the league’s best two-way players. In Game 1 — I didn’t manage to catch game 4 in its entirety but I surmise that it ended pretty much the same way game 1 did: CP3 flipped the proverbial switch/ went into “eff-you” mode/ became a God Amongst Men — he put on a dizzying display that would even triumph the Mardi Gras in the Big Easy.
(First of all, let me get this off my chest. It shouldn’t ever take a ridiculous one-handed laser-guided pass from the top of the key for the world to take notice of Chris Paul. We, as hoops fans, are far better than that. That being said, it was a moment that was met with agape jaws and stunned silence. I feel better now, moving on.)
There was a sequence in the 4th quarter of Game 1 in which CP3 utterly dominated every single possession. Here’s my mini-breakdown:
- 7:00 left in the 4th
Coming off a pick-n-paul (shameless plug no. 1), Paul sees Fisher fight over the screen and, knowing full well that Fisher is hustling back to stay in front of him, decides to put the brakes on immediately. Fisher crashes into his behind and is subsequently pinned down, unable to recover. Right there and then, a foul could have been called.
A crafty move, but no dice. Unperturbed, Paul maintains his dribble, and at the moment he spots Bynum flat-footed, lofts a delicate floater that falls for the deuce.
- Mid 4th Quarter, Baseline inbound of a made bucket
Vintage Chris Paul. It may or may not have any tangible impact to the possession’s outcome, but letting the ball roll to the halfway line when under no ball pressure has been a trademark of his play.
I’m willing to bet that over the course of the season, those extra few seconds prevented several shot clock violations for the Hornets. Not a major factor by any means, but it highlights Chris Paul’s willingness to obtain, nay, seize any possible advantage.
- NO 7 point lead, 4:25 in the 4th
Two man game with Aaron Gray. Gasol switches on Paul (bad, bad mistake), then tries to position between the roll man and Paul but he is a step too far back. Paul nails a step-back and the Hornets go up 7.
Marc Jackson utters his obligatory “Mama, There Goes That Man!” as they cut to commercials. (There’s a clause in his ESPN contract somewhere that gives him a bonus every time he uses that catchphrase.)
- NO 94, LAL 90, under 4 minutes to go
Fisher reaches in and challenges Paul to a pass. Paul sells the foul (flop?) And Lakers are in the penalty. CP3 is as brilliant as anyone in drawing these types of ticky-tacky fouls. It may not have a massive impact in this context, but imagine if it a one possession game with under a minute to go.
- The very next possession
Odom with the ball near the centre circle. He’s trying to get his teammates into a play, and here’s when Paul takes a swipe at the ball. He very nearly steals it, and his activity forces Lamar to give up the rock, disrupting the Laker offense in that possession.
So, to recap: A crafty floater, a clutch jumper, a near-steal and plenty of trademark CP3 desire and will sprinkled in between. This man is great, and he shouldn’t need to put up such singular efforts for us to pay attention.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions:
Fast-forward to Game 4, and here’s some level-headed analysis from Truehoop’s Henry Abbott on Paul’s game-clinching pass to Jarrett Jack.
“Why shoot with three people on me if one guy is open?” Paul explained at the All-Star break, when asked about his approach to crunch time. “If I’m open, I’ll shoot it, and if I’m not, I’ll pass it.”
Of course, it doesn’t always end so well. Imagine if Jack had missed, which could well have happened. Paul would have been chastised as passive. Williams would have been criticized for letting a bit player decide the series. Manhood would have been doubted all the way around (just like when LeBron James kicked the ball a wide open Donyell Marshall with the game on the line in Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals).
Firstly, my initial reaction to Paul’s quote was this: People are fickle. Basketball is fickle. What turned out to be a brilliant clutch play could have very easily been an opportunity to vilify Paul for putting the game in the hands of Jarrett freaking Jack. (Note: In a league where close games mostly devolve into superstar H-O-R-S-E fests, CP3 goes against the rule just by his “hit-the-open-man” mantra alone.)
And almost immediately, my mind raced to the moment LeBron James dished to Donyell Marshall on a decisive possession a couple of years ago. I find it quite intriguing that the subconscious benchmark for a player shirking from the spotlight is that LeBron James play.
Nonetheless, the basketball gods shone on Chris Paul and once again, the 21st century Isaiah Thomas has made his presence felt in the playoffs. Make no mistake; his game 4 stat line of 27-15-13 is a historic achievement. As I’ve broken down above, his impact is clearly felt on both ends on the court.
From the old-school observation standpoint, he was everywhere – you know I truly mean everything I say about Paul’s performance since this is the first time I’ve italicized and bolded a word for emphasis. His gaudy numbers, if anything, fails to justify his all-encompassing performance. But look deeper into the numbers and you’ll only be more impressed — 27 points on 14 shots, a perfect 11-11 from the charity stripe and a PER that’ll make John Hollinger blush. Oh, and he corralled the same number of rebounds as the two-headed Bynum/Gasol monster.
Chris Paul deserves our love, recognition and adulation. Granted, he can’t take your breath away in a way Rose, LeBron or Griffin can; his cerebral yet intuitive game is still an abstruse concept to most viewers; and he plays on the ground where his fellow superstars take flight. But as he proved against the Laker faithful, desire and heart are the greatest equalizers to all the talent in the world. And that, to me, is something worth rooting for.