A small and not very vocal minority is starting to hot-take their way into this Chris Paul-in-the-playoffs storyline.
The popularly anointed Point God, Paul has left many of his adversaries in the wake with his brilliant combination of passing, game managing (meant in the highest possible way), and all-around likeability. Unlike many of the great players before him, he’s yet to experience any type of backlash from, well, anyone when considering he’s yet to advance past the second round of the NBA playoffs. Now, in the best coaching and playing situation of his career, it was expected that Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers would fare better than their 1-2 deficit going into Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
with the Clippers down 15 and just under 11 minutes left to play, you could sense a palpable desperation injected into the veins of everyone at Staples late in the fourth quarter of that contest. Paul isn’t LeBron James but he did what most of the best players in the history of basketball has ever done: take over a basketball game on both ends of the court.
Tony Allen did yeoman’s work on Kevin Durant in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, frustrating the MVP into performances that warranted awful Lil B jokes. Paul doesn’t have the athleticism, length, or energy (he actually has to play offense) that Allen does, but after Doc Rivers assigned him to Durant in that desperate fourth quarter, it worked.
Durant does much of his isolation work against players that are slower than him, allowing easy blow-by dribbles or a shimmy-shake into a pull-up jumper. Paul cuts off the left-hand dribble here, forcing KD to spin back and lose his dribble. When Durant tries the crossover move that most big men are too slow to recover from and swipe at, Paul’s low center of gravity (ahem) allows him to see the ball much easier.
Another thing Allen did was make it harder for Durant to catch the ball in a comfortable position. Paul’s ability to fight through screens — a trait he showed off repeatedly against Stephen Curry in the first round — allows him to gnaw at KD’s hips in every possession. Fronting KD with the help of a big on the back side (DeAndre Jordan) forces the OKC offense to go another direction — something at which it’s never been good. With their intentionally deliberate one-option set plays, the Paul front forces OKC to do things like Nick Collison drive-and-kicks.
Also, Paul never leaves Durant’s side, keeping a hand on him even when KD is miles out of the play. I would assume this is the appropriate time to acknowledge Paul’s high-IQ play and overall grittiness (cliché alert!).
Then, when Durant does get the ball, an aware Blake Griffin sprints over to double and forces a stunned KD to throw it away to, of all people, Jamal Crawford. It’s a blitzing defense that’s more likely to bleed into an opposing open shot. But when used in moderation and the result being a turnover turned layup? Glorious. With KD frustrated by the fronting and the OKC offense slowing down because of Scotty Brooks going full isolation, the timing was perfect.
One possession later, Doc Rivers put Danny Granger in to match up on Durant. Result? Easy entry pass, canned fadeaway jumper engage.
Without the post-up game that LeBron James has added in his growth as an offensive player, Durant is thrown off his comfort zone on offense. But this defensive strategy is a mere band-aid to the perpetual open wound that is Kevin Durant on offense. Paul’s defense worked in spurts because he has just enough energy on that end and the shock value of it paralyzed the OKC offense for a stretch. It remains to be seen whether this is sustainable in the way that Curry’s lack of shooting was.
Spectacular Chris Paul is different from flashy Chris Paul. Flashy Paul shoots 8-for-9 from three, even hoisting up uncharacteristic heat checks because why the hell not? But that’s not his game. He’s gone out of his way in postgame press conference to intimate that he’s a passer first. I’d argue he’s also as effective, if not more so, driving to the basket post pick-and-roll with Blake or Jordan, or both, manning the sides to sponge away defenders.
An injured CP3 spent much of this postseason settling from behind the arc, averaging 5.3 three-point attempts in the Golden State Warriors series and six against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sunday afternoon, he only launched four, instead toying with the Thunder defense off the dribble relentlessly.
Look how far up Serge Ibaka is playing before the play even starts. Paul’s handle allows him to spin back across, using Blake’s screen, and flip a floater in (not an easy shot) before Ibaka can recover. It’s an impossible cover for two impossibly lanky defenders. A healthy Paul attacks the bucket not only to score but also to open up options under the basket and around the perimeter.
But it’s still not there, yet. Paul shot only 10-for-23 and came up gimpy on his knee late in the second half. With a must-win game Tuesday (aren’t they all?), there’s no time to wonder if Paul is healthy or not. On defense and offense, he’s plenty well enough to carry this team to the Western Conference Finals. It’s just that the team on the opposing sideline might be better. Excuses or not, it’d be a nice time for Chris Paul to have his Dirk Nowitzki moment.