April 29, 2011
New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul(notes) entered his team's first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers as the NBA's hibernating superstar. Although generally acknowledged as the best pure point guard in the league, he came into the playoffs with a low profile, mostly due to a run of injuries over the last few seasons and a mere three national TV appearances this season.
He exited the playoffs on Thursday night as the best player in the entire first round. Over six games, Paul did virtually everything for the Hornets, scoring, passing and rebounding his team to two wins against the two-time defending champions. His statline is ridiculous: 20.5 ppg (54.5 percent FG), 11.5 apg, 6.7 rpg and 1.8 steals per game. Yet even those numbers don't speak to the tremendous impact he had on this series.
The Hornets threw out perhaps the weakest supporting cast for a playoff team in the past 20 years, if not longer. With David West(notes) sidelined with a major knee injury, New Orleans played a roster with arguably four other rotation-level NBA players -- Carl Landy, Trevor Ariza(notes), Emeka Okafor(notes) and Jarret Jack -- and only Ariza and Landry can be said to have played particularly well in the series. Otherwise, Paul ran onto the court next to such luminaries as Aaron Gray(notes), Marco Belinelli(notes), Willie Green(notes) and Jason Smith(notes) playing significant players. A few of those players had good stretches, and even games. But they should not be playing in the sixth game of any playoff series.
Yet Paul was so amazing that he raised the game of everyone on his team. As a floor general, he has the ability to create angles from nowhere by keeping his dribble, teasing defenders into bad spots, and whipping passes as soon as a lane opens. The degree to which he did that against the Lakers defied reasonable expectations. On top of all that, he scored with regularity, exploiting Phil Jackson's tendency to switch on the pick-and-roll by dribbling bigger defenders into oblivion. Paul was extremely productive, tough, and insanely fun to watch. If the Hornets had even two solid 3-point shooters on the roster, they may have won the series.
Paul put on a series-long clinic that should become the new example of premium point guard play at the highest level of the game. That the Hornets lost the series says little about his play -- this is one case in which the series MVP very clearly played for the losing team. Paul was so good, in fact, that it's possible to imagine Derrick Rose(notes) leading the Bulls to the championship and Paul nevertheless being widely identified as the best two-way point guard in the league. If that sounds crazy, then you probably didn't watch Paul at length.
Paul's series against L.A. was a career-defining performance and a reminder that, when healthy, he is one of the three best players in the league. I doubt we'll see any single player have a better stretch of six games in the entire playoffs.