With under 10 seconds left, Chris Paul had the ball with the Rockets up three points, needing only to dribble the ball across half court, or make an easy pass, to seal the game. Instead, he threw the ball about 10 feet too high to P.J. Tucker. The Timberwolves got a chance to tie the game and, luckily for Paul, could not capitalize.
It was his sixth turnover, the most he has had in a playoff game since 2015, when he turned the ball over six times in a 27-point loss to the Spurs. He had 4 assists in that game, just like he had 4 assists Sunday night in Houston. The Clippers would eventually win that series because of, to this point, the signature moment of Chris Paul’s career: a series-winning shot over Danny Green and Tim Duncan.
Chris Paul’s legacy is defined by two things: being the greatest pure point guard of his generation, and never making it to the conference finals.
CP3 has a reputation, largely undeserved, of being a playoff choker. But he has, time and again, in 76 career playoff games, shown that he is capable of rising to the occasion and dominating on the biggest stage.
Thank god he’s done it before, because Sunday night, he looked like he never has.
Paul was tentative from the get-go, deferring (rightfully so) to Harden, who was dissecting Minnesota’s D to perfection, with Clint Capela his ever-present muse. This has become par for the course for him. When he and Harden share the court, Paul takes a distinct back seat while the MVP does what he does.
The formula then goes that, with 3 minutes or so left in the first quarter, CP3 re-enters for Harden and imposes his will on the game, slicing up the opposition’s bench without mercy. In Game 1 Sunday, that didn’t happen. Paul never looked comfortable. But more concerning than that, the man who is such an expert passes that he tries to get the laces just right when he passes to shooters was passing to the other team.
He finished with 6 turnovers, but had several more passes deflected. He made one three-pointer early, but missed his other five attempts. Other than a brief stretch to start the fourth quarter, he contributed almost nothing offensively.
CP3 played 34 points on the night and finished a -4, the only starter to finish with a net rating. Yes, part of that is the fact that no matter when Harden sits, he’s off the floor. But part of the reason they have worked so perfectly this year is that the team never dipped when that happened. In many games, Paul’s re-entrance with 3 minutes left in the first quarter would change the complexion of a game, focusing the Rockets with the two-way perfection Paul can play at the highest level.
That CP3 was not in Houston in Game 1. It is not gone forever, it appeared most of this season, and it was incredible. Maybe the realization that he can have a total meltdown and the Rockets can still win a playoff game will ease the mental burden that seems to be weighing on Chris Paul, because the man does have a lot of history riding on this run.
In Paul’s first season in Houston, the team won more games than it ever has before. The Rockets have higher odds to win the championship than at any time since the turn of the century. He has helped elevate this team, but in doing so, he has reached closer to what must feel like the peak of a Sisyphean hill. The closer he gets to the top, the heavier the boulder weighs on him until it ends up crushing him.
That is one scenario. The other way this could go is, by realizing the MVP is on his team, not standing in his way, it could mentally free him. By knowing that his team does not rely on him the way it did in New Orleans and Los Angeles, he can dominate the possessions with the ball in his hands, communicate to his teammates and choke the life out of whatever guard who happens to be matched up with him.
The Rockets run one of the NBA’s most aggressive switching scheme, so he wasn’t usually guarding Derrick Rose when the disgraced former MVP went off for 16 inefficient points (14 shot, while Karl-Anthony Towns had 9. Unbelievable). But he could have had a stronger defensive imprint on the game.
The Rockets were excellent defensively in Game 1, and that is the only reason they were able to hold home court. The pressure should be off CP3 and he should relax and play better down the stretch.
This is the best shot this 32-going-on-33-year-old point guard has ever had at the title. He just probably shouldn’t think about it so much. Good luck to him, because the Rockets need him to forget about history, and just play.