More has been written about the Houston Rockets this season than in any year I can remember. Often, these stories include a trope line of how Daryl Morey loaded up on defense this offseason by getting P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to pair with Trevor Ariza for a killer, switchy wing rotation, which is true.
But the best defensive player Morey acquired this offseason is Chris Paul.
CP3 has made nine All-Defense teams in his career, including seven first-team appearances. These are not Kobe late-season honors: he is probably the best defensive point guard in the league. While Tucker, Ariza and Mbah a Moute will be chasing Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston through all kinds of off-ball screening and movement, Paul will draw the featured assignment in starting on Stephen Curry.
With the Rockets’ slavish devotion to switching every screen, on or off ball, Paul will not be matched up with Curry throughout many of the Rockets’ defensive possessions. But Curry is the Warriors’ offensive engine, and the way Paul chases him off the ball, contests his shots and communicates to his teammates could make the difference between a win and a loss in tight games.
Curry is a relentless mover without the basketball. He can create his own shot at will, so he doesn’t get as mentioned like Kyle Korver for his movement, but he cuts a lot, and he cuts hard. In the playoffs so far, according to NBA Player Tracking, his average speed on offense in the playoffs so far, even though he’s been limited by his knee injury, is 5.1 miles per hour, No. 1 of all players who have averaged more than 13 minutes a game, and also the most of anyone left in the playoffs. Chris Paul’s average speed on defense hovers around 3.5 miles per hour.
The Rockets’ scheme is designed to keep Paul from running around the court. Curry will often run through multiple screens along the base line, making it likely that Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker will find themselves switched onto the two-time MVP. You can bet CP3 will be barking at each one of them, helping them hang with Curry.
Paul averaged more than 2 steals per game in the Jazz series, and the Warriors’ one weakness is their propensity to turn the ball over. Harden is leading the playoffs in steals. Paul has one turnover combined in his last three games. If the Rockets lose the turnover battle, they are sunk.
Because CP3 is great at all the things the Rockets need to defeat the Warriors, his mere presence on the court should help the balance tilt their way. Just like the Warriors would be better if Durant and Curry played 42 minutes apiece, Paul might need to demonstrate the ability to play longer stretches. He played a playoffs-high 37 minutes in his 41-point, 10-assist, zero-turnover masterpiece. He might have been tired, but he saved his best for the end of the game.
Ultimately, it all boils down to this: the Rockets have allowed nine fewer points per 100 possessions with Paul on the court during these playoffs, going from 111 when he’s sitting — not good — to 102 when he’s on the floor, which is up there with the stingiest teams in the league.
James Harden needs to score in heavy bunches for the Rockets to win this series. The role players need to knock down their open shots. Capela needs to own the paint. But CP3’s defense against the relentless Warriors attack is just as vital to giving the Rockets a historic victory.