The more I watch Chris Paul, the more he reminds me of a heavyweight fighter.
Against Portland on Sunday, Paul once again conserved his energy and wasted little movement. He felt out the defense of his opponent, occasionally exploring with a jab up the middle just to gauge the reaction. Mostly though, Paul relied on his knowledge of angles and settled for peppering in occasional shots from the outside. It was a relatively pedestrian first 46 minutes for Paul, leading lots of instant gratification type folks to wonder aloud why the heck they paid for this.
Regardless though, even without a good showing from Paul, the Clippers were up big on the scorecard thanks to some Floyd Mayweather-esque type defense from the entire team. It wasn’t the most appeasing brand of basketball, but it was effective. Portland was being forced into mistakes at an alarming rate (21 turnover to 24 made field goals at one point) and looked out of it completely.
But the tide would eventually swing. The Clippers 17-point lead to start the fourth quarter was melting away when Paul landed his first real significant blow of the night — a lucky haymaker of a shot in the form of a leaning, bank three-pointer at the top of the key as the shot clock expired.
Portland, of course, would get up off the mat, because that’s basically what Portland does. Jamal Crawford, who warmed up to a temperature level somewhere between scorching and Hot Pocket, refused to let the Blazers go away easily, tallying 13 of his 23 points in Portland’s huge 36-point fourth quarter.
But like any great fighter, Paul knew exactly when to let his hands fly. Portland had spent a lot of energy rallying, and all that was needed now was a good combination counter to put them away.
Paul obliged. With a quick split of the initial defense, he landed a high, fading shot that sailed just over the reach of LaMarcus Aldridge to push the Clippers lead to a two possession game (92-88) with 9 seconds to go. It was Paul’s first truly big shot as a Clipper, but just one in a countless list of knockout blows over his career.
With the Blazers now reeling on the ropes, they’d need Crawford, the NBA’s king of the 4-point play, to counter back. But like Tyson in his prime, there was Paul, overcoming a five-inch height disadvantage by staying inside and making life uncomfortable for Crawford. The hand speed of Paul tied up Crawford as he looked to load up, forcing a jump ball — which Paul would somehow go on to win, and in effect, seal the game.
When Paul was traded to Los Angeles and Lob City was born, the expectations started to soar. I’ve been urging Paul to be more aggressive, to stop being so passive, to take over from the very first minute and never let up. I wanted the Chris Paul with the killer instinct, the guy who puts the responsibility in his own two hands before trusting it with others.
But maybe I expected too much from Paul. Maybe I’m no worse than the bloodthirsty fight fan, screaming for his favorite fighter to throw haymakers in the first round of a fight to score a knockout. Maybe it’s silly of me to ask a technician like Paul to put his head down and start swinging instead of assessing what’s in front of him.
What makes Paul great isn’t his overwhelming physical abilities (Rose), his heart (Isiah) or his guts (Bryant) — it’s his execution of the Sweet Science. And although we don’t always know his plan, nights like tonight make it a little easier to put your faith in it.