It’s a Saturday evening in Oakland, CA, and the Houston Rockets are preparing to take on their arch nemesis, Golden State Warriors, in a prime time special on ABC. The last time the two faced off, James Harden led the Rockets to a 135-134 overtime victory, behind a 44-point triple-double performance.
Although Houston held a 2-0 regular season lead, no one gave the Rockets a chance to defeat the Warriors with the news that Harden would miss the game due to a cervical strain and flu-like symptoms. While everyone gave the Warriors an automatic dub, one future Hall-of-Famer refused to let the Rockets go down without a fight.
Playing without his backcourt mate, Chris Paul put together one of his best performances of the season. The nine-time All-Star recorded an efficient 23 points and dished a season-high 17 assists to help the Harden-less Rockets capture a 118-112 victory over the Warriors. While this was a statement to the rest of the league that the Rockets can win without Harden scoring 30 or more points, the game was more about the rebirth of CP3.
Chris Paul vs Warriors— Charlas de Basket (@charlasdebasket) February 24, 2019
With the exception of a 32-point outing in Brooklyn, the 2018-19 season seemed as if it would go down as the beginning of the end for Paul. Coming off a season where he helped the Rockets come within a game of the NBA Finals, injuries and lack of aggression on the court made this a disappointing year for CP3.
So much so, many begin to question whether his max contract was a mistake. At 33-years old, Paul has appeared in just 38 out of 61 games, and his numbers are far from the player that made him one of the best point guards in league history. He’s averaging 16.2 points per game, the second lowest of his career after his rookie year (16.1), and he has a career-low in field goal percentage (.429).
However, after his phenomenal play Saturday night, Paul reminded everyone that he is the most important piece to the Rockets championship title.
Since returning from the All-Star break, the Rockets are playing some of their best basketball of the season. They have won three out of their last four games and are on the heels of the Oklahoma City Thunder for third in the Western Conference at just 2.5 games back.
Yes, Harden has continued to play at an MVP level, but the Rockets’ mid-season turnaround is due to the resurgence of The Point God. Over his last four games, Paul is averaging 20.7 points on 50.6 percent shooting from the field, to go along with 11 assists, and 1.5 steals. As his numbers begin to resemble his career averages, the biggest factor in the resurgence of Paul has been his leadership on the court.
With Paul, Houston’s offense is no longer dominated by one individual. Throughout this four-game stretch, Paul has helped the Rockets reestablished themselves as a top offensive team in the league, with an offensive net rating of 112.2, to go along with the fourth best assist average at 22.8 per game.
Paul’s return to All-Star form has also helped several players step up offensively, none more so than P.J. Tucker. Prior to Paul going out with a hamstring injury, Tucker was having one of the best shooting stretches of his career. He shot 41 percent from the field and a blazing 40 percent from behind the arc through the first 31 games of the season.
However, Tucker’s production on the court took a huge hit in the absence of Paul, averaging 5.7 points on an unpleasant 27 percent from behind the arc while he was out.
Since Paul’s return, Tucker has recaptured the mojo that has made him a valuable player, averaging 8.0 points on 35.3 percent shooting from deep. Over the last three games, Paul has helped Tucker’s play rise to even another level, as he’s averaging 13.6 points on 61 percent shooting from the field. Tucker’s most recent play also includes a 15-point performance during the Rockets 118-113 victory over the Hornets, in a game where over half of his points came off Paul’s assists. One of CP3’s greatest skills has always been just knowing where guys like to receive the ball.
With Paul a little over two months away from his 34th birthday, it is easy to say that the Point God is no longer in the prime of his career. However, if the Rockets have any chance of winning a title this season or next, then Chris Paul is by far the most important player to that elusive championship title.