NEW ORLEANS – Chris Paul lay in bed, eyes closed and nothing. His mind wouldn't stop racing. He couldn't sleep. Desperate to honor his game-day routine of an afternoon nap, the clock kept creeping closer to Game 1 of his playoff life. Resistance was futile.
So, he clicked on the television, started watching Washington-Cleveland and the ferocity of the basketball had him enraptured.
"Man," he thought to himself, "this is serious ."
Wide awake now, Paul was soon stealing snippets of the epic San Antonio-Phoenix game and on his way out of the interview room Saturday night, on his way out of a historic NBA playoff debut – 35 points, 10 assists and four steals in a 104-92 victory over Dallas – Paul said, "It felt like the first day of the NCAA tournament."
These Hornets had come out sluggishly for Game 1, throwing air balls and clunkers, dropping passes and feeding into a league-wide suspicion that they were vulnerable as the Western Conference's No. 2 seed, that the Mavericks were destined to derail this dream season in New Orleans.
Hornets coach Byron Scott, down a dozen points, took a long look at his team at halftime in the locker room and simply said, "Relax."
Before long, though, Scott grabbed Paul, still weeks short of his 23rd birthday, and Magic Johnson's old running mate blurted into his ear, "MVP candidates are made in the regular season, but MVPs are made in the playoffs."
The kid's on his way. Paul was pure genius, playing point guard in a way that hasn't been seen at such a tender age in a long, long time. Eventually, he made Jason Kidd invisible on the floor, pushing past him into the paint on those pick and rolls for floating jumpers and flick passes and delirious drives to the rim. The Mavericks tried to trap him and yet Paul was too sudden, splitting the defenders toward the basket, toward one more standing ovation in a city where pro basketball had been left for dead.
"He just dominated the game," Mavericks coach Avery Johnson sighed.
As it turns out, the kid who freely admitted his nervousness had one of the most spectacular playoff debuts in history. Once Paul lost the nerves, he left Kidd in the dust. Before this series, the only doubt about Paul was he hadn't done it in the playoffs. Who knew how he'd respond, right? Now, he's done it in the playoffs, too.
It was just Game 1, but the New Orleans message was unmistakable: These Hornets weren't simply some feel-good fairy tale doomed for destruction. For the Hornets, there was immense pressure to get out of Saturday night with a victory, to dispel the suggestions that they were a paper champion of the Southwest Division.
Now, the burden belongs to Dallas. The all-or-nothing trade for Kidd, 35, is under fierce scrutiny. He had his moments in the opener, but it looked like Paul had an old man trying to guard him.
After beating Kidd down the floor, Paul made a Pistol Pete Maravich stutter dribble in the lane and slapped a pass with his right hand to a cutting David West for a basketball and foul. Tyson Chandler (10 points and 15 rebounds) snatched rebounds through the tangle of bodies, caught missed shots out of the air and slammed them back through the net. Peja Stojakovic was popping three-pointers. Man, it was loud here.
As much as anything, the Hornets – such a reflection of Scott – established a toughness about themselves. Once, Dirk Nowitzki caught Paul in the face with the back of his hand on a foul. When Nowitzki cut West's lip in the fourth quarter, the Hornets' soft-spoken power forward marched into Nowitzki's face, gently tapped his cheek and told him, "You only get one time to do that (expletive)."
Outside the interview room, as West re-told that story to Paul, his point guard was downright giddy. The Mavericks had been a playoff-hardened team that had tried to bully the Hornets, get inside their heads, get them doubting themselves and Paul was thrilled to watch West get into the reigning MVP's face.
"Did you really?" Paul said, slapping his teammate's hand and reveling over a night when they had conquered the first test together. To have lost Game 1 would've invited that uncertainty into the Hornets' minds, but Scott was right. They just needed to relax.
This was a historic night for basketball in New Orleans, for a young team that has dared to make a run before its time, before basketball even knew it was on the make. More than once, Scott has told his players how much these Hornets remind him of his first playoff team in New Jersey. They were too young to advance in the playoffs, they were told, and yet they made it all the way to the NBA Finals in 2002.
"That team made me believe even more that playoff experience isn't that important," Scott said.
As it turns out, Scott will take the greatness of his freshman playoff point guard over that precious playoff experience. The rest of his teammates had cleared out of the Hornets locker room and Paul wrapped a towel around his waist and hustled to the showers. Yes, those words that his coach left with him – that MVPs were made this time of year – resonated, but one night, one game, hardly had him considering the context of history.
"Whatever I have to do to help my team win, that's it right now," he said. "I'm not thinking about legacies. … Just winning right now."
And then, the playoff freshman smiled, and on this day that felt like that the first of the NCAA tournament, after Game 1 of his playoff life, Chris Paul said, "Just survive and advance."
- Chris Paul