Good morning, friends, and welcome back to The NBA. (Thank you for your patronage.) In today's performance, the role of "Just About Every Defender in the League" will be played by Jeremy Lin, while Chris Paul will reprise the role of "Chris Paul." Do enjoy:
As a special treat for our treasured season subscription holders, without whose indulgence sharing these brilliant works would be impossible, please enjoy a bit more of Mr. Paul's masterpiece theatre, already in progress:
I'm not sure if it was Picasso or Pete Maravich who said, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life," but watching Monday's matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, you couldn't help thinking that the phrase lacked a postscript: "... unless you're the ones guarding CP3, because that'll leave you pretty flippin' dusty." (Hey, I don't have the Pistol's way with words.)
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Paul was sensational on Monday, scoring 23 points on just 13 shots, dishing 17 assists (nine of which led to layups or dunks, five of which led to 3-point shots) against just two turnovers, and grabbing three rebounds and two steals in 33-plus minutes of peerless work to lead the Clips to a 137-118 win over the visiting Rockets in ex-Laker Dwight Howard's return to Staples Center.
L.A. never trailed, blitzing out to a 20-6 lead in the game's first 5 1/2 minutes behind 10 points from J.J. Redick and five early CP3 dimes. Houston got within six after a Francisco Garcia 3-pointer made it 53-47 with 7 1/2 minutes left before halftime, but drew no closer, spending most of the game staring up at double-digit deficits thanks to Paul's deft orchestration; the Clipper lead grew to 21 in the fourth quarter after this Paul-to-Blake Griffin alley-oop:
Redick's 26 points (on 8 for 15 shooting) and Paul's 23 led the way in the win, which saw Doc Rivers' team shoot 52.1 percent from the field, a sterling 15 for 38 from 3-point range and 24 for 28 from the foul line. (Even noted charity-stripe bricklayers Griffin and DeAndre Jordan combined to go 5 for 9 on their freebies.) It was a pillar-to-post thrashing, and while plenty of blame for that belongs to a Rockets team that coach Kevin McHale said after the game “had no defensive intensity [and] couldn’t get a handle on [the Clippers] at all," plenty of credit's also due to Rivers, CP3, Griffin and company for producing precisely the kind of offensive onslaught we expected to see heading into the season.
"It's fun basketball," Paul said after the game. "When we get stops, eyes light up because we have so many options."
That's certainly evident on a night where seven Clippers scored in double figures, offseason acquisitions Redick and Jared Dudley (15 points, 3 for 6 from deep) were spacing the floor, Griffin and Jordan (29 points and 16 boards between them) were running the floor and crashing the glass, and Jamal Crawford (21 points, 6 for 11 from 3, four assists) was doing his Sixth Man of the Year routine. All those disparate elements require a catalyst to become explosive, though, and that's where Paul's just on another level right now.
His 17 assists against the Rockets were the most in a single game by any player thus far in this young NBA season, besting the previous high of 15 set by ... Chris Paul, in his dominating performance against the Golden State Warriors on Thursday. Through four games, he's averaging 26.5 points per game (tied with Kevin Love for second in the league behind Kevin Durant) on sterling shooting splits (51.7 percent from the floor, 37.5 percent from long range and 97.4 percent from the line, having missed one of 39 free-throw attempts this season). He's averaging 13.3 assists per game, and he's got more steals (13) than turnovers (12) at the moment. He's assisting on 56.8 percent of his teammates' buckets while he's on the floor, which (if maintained over the full season) would be the highest share since John Stockton's 57.5 percent all the way back in the 1990-91 season; he's creating more than 30 points per game for his teammates by assist, far and away the best in the league, according to the NBA's SportVU player-tracking data. He's the straw that stirs the drink, and on nights like Monday, the result tastes pretty sweet for his new head coach.
“It was one of those games. We were making everything,” Rivers said after the game. “They were in foul trouble. So for us tonight, a lot of things went right.”
Starting, of course, with the guy wearing No. 3 in the home whites.
Whether this incarnation of the Clippers can be a more serious late-season threat than the last two CP3-led models remains to be seen. They've still got massive questions defensively — they did still allow the Rockets to score 118 points on 50 percent shooting, they needed a heroic CP3 performance to keep the Warriors at bay last week, and as NBA.com's John Schuhmann writes, the Griffin-Jordan tandem just keeps looking like it's not a championship-level defensive pairing. (For his part, Paul argues that L.A.'s defense "is better than it looks [and] it is going to get better," but we'll believe it when we see it.)
On the other side of the ball, their offense has gone from terror to terrifying whenever Paul has sat. The Clippers are outscoring opponents by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor, but have been outscored by opponents by nearly 13 points-per-100 when he takes a breather, with offseason import Darren Collison looking very shaky as Paul's backup. Considering Paul's history of knee and hip injuries and the importance of managing his workload to keep him fresh, this is a pretty big concern that will have to be addressed at some point should Collison's work as an offensive caretaker not improve.
It's early yet, and the story of the Clippers season will focus largely on Rivers' efforts to answer those questions. For right now, though, the story is the guy pounding the dribble, probing the defense, getting virtually anything he wants every trip down the floor and looking, at the moment, like the most valuable offensive player in the league. It's a pretty good story, and well worth getting all gussied up for a night at the theatre.
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