The game within the game: Courtney Lee vs. Chris Paul, or The Greatness of Chris Paul

There are few basketball visuals I find more fascinating than the specter of a swingman defending a small point guard.  Scottie Pippen’s full-court pressure of Pacers guard Mark Jackson in 1997 immediately comes to mind.  Lebron James on Derrick Rose last season is the most recent example.

The implications are obvious.  We are telling you that, despite your size, you are the key to your entire team’s success, therefore, we have decided to assign this much larger man to defend you.  You, at maybe 6 feet, will now have to operate against a man close to a half foot taller than you, who is longer, stronger, and probably just as quick.  The swingman-point guard situational switch is the only matchup in basketball which sees such a striking size disparity.  The swingman has conserved his energy with the intent of killing you.  With your physical tools rendered useless, you must now use your mind.

Last night’s affair against LA saw one of these matchups when defensive specialist Courtney Lee switched onto point guard Chris Paul to close out regulation (and overtime.)  I immediately pushed forward to the edge of my seat.

On a preceding possession, Paul had embarrassed Kyle Lowry with a vicious pullback crossover, nailing a jumper in his face after a smart pushoff elbow.  Paul had been having his way with Lowry for much of the night.

But now he found himself facing the much bigger, more physical Lee.  Lee’s defense was awe-inspiring.  Rather than backing up, as is usually done against quick penetrators, Lee closed in on Paul, aggressively applying pressure, confident enough in his own physical gifts to not worry about being burnt.  Paul tried the pullback to no luck, with Lee holding ground, the ball bouncing off his leg on both attempts.  To end the quarter, Paul was forced into the corner for a desperation heave.  Honestly, I had no idea Courtney had this in him.

The final three minutes of overtime were a different story.  Rather than pulling back, Paul froze Lee dribbling between his legs, and then blew straight by him en route to the hoop.  Those two possessions resulted in a Blake Griffin dunk and a Paul jumper.

Watching Paul closely last night, I felt sheepish about even entertaining the notion, earlier in the year, that perhaps, because of Kyle Lowry’s similar stats and meager salary, he might be a better value for this team than Paul.  When it comes to talents like Paul, cost-value goes out the window.  He’s the best point guard in basketball since Magic Johnson.

If you watch Paul, he’s not really even playing basketball.  He’s playing some other game – Kevin McHale referred to it as “daydreaming” prior to last night’s affair.  Honestly, watching Paul, having watched Kyle Lowry for the last three years, I don’t think Paul really even tries until it matters, close and late.

Kyle Lowry is a guy whose output is a product of effort.  He plays at 110% maximizing his talents; he does not have a different gear.  There is nothing wrong with this.  But the case study comparison with Paul serves as proof of the base worthlessness of conventional ‘points per game’, ‘assists per game’ metrics.  If utilizing only these, one would conclude, as some here had, that the two players were close in overall impact.

In actuality, Paul doesn’t even seem to be trying most of the game.  He sifts through it, relying on muscle memory, letting things come to him.  When it’s close, he takes control.  The difference is strikingly evident.

Paul’s abilities are strikingly unique.  Other players–in fact everyone else–goes around the roll man on the pick and roll, proceeding forward.  Paul goes around, stops, darts back in the direction from which he came, and stops again.  He almost plays the game in slow motion.  On one possession last night, Paul spun off a pick and roll, sifting through two defenders with the ball barely strung by the ends of his fingertips.  It looked effortless.  I’ve watched numerous Houston Rockets point guards in the last decade.  To be a Houston Rocket point guard means you have to be in the top fractional percent of ballhandlers/decision-makers in the entire world.  Paul makes every one of those men that I’ve seen seem completely inept and unskilled.  That’s how great the difference is between the best and just ‘good’, when good is from a class of the top .05%.

When Lee closed in, Paul’s intensity accordingly rose, matching the swingman’s aggressiveness.  He wanted the challenge and wasn’t giving up the ball.  With Blake Griffin rendered ineffective, that game last night was Paul’s to lose, and he took the fate in his hands, dominating the ball throughout the final frame.  You could see the complete change in body language from the previous quarters.

Watching last night’s game, I now understand why Paul’s Hornets accumulated the jaw-dropping crunch-time statistics that they did during his tenure.  He’s beyond belief, even just visually.  Paul may not have erupted statistically in overtime, but you saw the value and advantage of single-player ball domination over team-oriented offense.  It’s mental, it’s psychological.  Even if he’s missing shots, as Paul did originally, it’s just different when everything runs through one man.  There are less links in the chain for a breakdown; less elements have to work right.  Confidence is channeled into one unit, allowing less room for error.

Witnessing last night’s exhibition made me more despondent over the Rockets’ long term chances, until they can get their own elite player.  It also leads me to predict the Clippers as my favorite to emerge from the West.  Too much can go wrong in the hands of Russell Westbrook before getting to Kevin Durant.  Paul controls the Clippers on a string.

About the author: Rahat Huq is a lawyer in real life and the founder and editor-in-chief of

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  • wtflife

    I think Chris Paul is great, but I don’t like their chances. Blake Griffin has all the talent in the world, but I think that David West was a better compliment to Chris Paul in the best hornets season. Maybe Chris Paul is better now, but I don’t see it, and OKC are going to be able to unleash 3 effective perimeter defenders on him in Sefolosha (sp?) Harden and Westbrook. All bigger men than him. However, maybe OKC falls to Dallas or someone else. Then the rest of the west is a very beatable group of none elite back courts for him to feast upon. As always but in this west of parity even more so than usual it will all be about the matchups.

  • htownwaq

    It seems like he is a nice and thoughtful guy, the way he responded to your questions.  Would my assessment be accurate?

  • rahathuq

     @htownwaq hes one of the nicest guys ive met so far.  which in itself shows his competitive fire, because he comes off as a total ***** on the court.  completely different person in real life.  i saw him in the hallway one time last year, he obviously had no idea who the hell i was, but looked me right in the eye, smiled and said whatsup.

  • rahathuq

    that’s true.  theyll have 3 fresh long defenders.  thats going to be one hell of a series.

  • tammiecantrell1

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  • helensweeney4

    @AdnanLakhani Take this chance to become your own boss! Work less and make more without leaving your house. thecashjournalsite .com

  • redstaag

    the best point guard in the league in Derek Rose. Deron Williams is actually a better pg than Chris Paul.
    And for those screaming that Lowry was the next Magic Johnson, its very telling that he can’t guard his man during clutch moments. Another reason why you can’t have a midget pg on any championship team

  • jeannetterodri7

    @htownwaq I hated going to work. I started my own home business and now make 7k/month from home! thecashjournalsite .com

  • htownwaq

    Your description of Paul’s efortless play is great.  Have you seen much of Kyrie Irving?  I’ve become a closet Cavs fan since living in Cleveland, and after watching their games, Irving has a lot of the same efortless excellence you describe with Paul.  Irving really lets the game come to him, and usually takes over in the 4th quarter.  Just wondering what your thoughts are on a Irving – Paul comparison.

  • Frogs07

    Interesting comments on a Thunder/Clippers matchup. It’s very difficult to out rebound the Thunder on either end of the floor.
    I think there are two proven methods to defeat them.
    1.) Force turnovers and beat them in transition
    2.) Draw fouls on drives to the basket (take advantage of the charity stripe)
    Those are the prominent trends I found in their 8 losses this year.
    If the Clippers want to defeat OKC they need to find someone who is skilled at getting to the rim and drawing contact (high free throw %). It wouldn’t hurt if this person was defensive minded and could pressure the Thunder backcourt too. Billups filled this role nicely. I don’t know of many available players in this mold for them though.  

  • Frogs07

    Interesting comments on a Thunder/Clippers matchup. It’s also very difficult to outrebound the Thunder on either end of the floor. But the Clippers match up well with Jordan/Griffin.
    I think there are two proven methods to defeat them.
    1.) Force turnovers and beat them in transition.
    2.) Draw more fouls than them
                -Take advantage of the charity stripe for points.
                -Slow their momentum.
    Those are the prominent trends I found in their 8 losses this year.
    To increase their odds of victory, the Clippers need to find someone who is skilled at getting to the rim and drawing contact (high free throw % guy). It wouldn’t hurt if this person was defensive minded and could pressure the Tunder backcourt too. Billups filled this role nicely. I don’t know of many available players in this mold for them though.

  • Frogs07

    Or the third method as Rahat indicated is Westbrook self destructs. But I wouldn’t rely on that for preparation. He’s held himself together since the bench incident with Durant very well.

  • Frogs07

    I should have prefaced this post by saying losing Billups hurts the Clippers in a match up.

  • Frogs07

    I should have prefaced this post by saying Billups loss hurts the Clippers in a OKC matchup because he could perform both these functions.

  • Metsox

     @rahathuq You should check out Paul on the BS report. Fascinating interview. He basically said that the first half of the game he is just trying to get his teammates their numbers. Also, re Lowry and Paul. While there may be superficial similarities in their numbers, on a rate basis, Paul is much much better. .250 ws/48  vs. .178 for Lowry…

  • bleedred94

     @redstaag derrick rose is a better scorer. chris paul is the best point guard in the league by a mile.

  • rahathuq

     @redstaag sorry, but rose isnt even half as good as chris paul.  

  • redstaag

    @ rahathuq
    the stats/numbers/mvp award don’t lie. What exactly has chris paul done to warrant you to say derek rose is not half as good as him. Chris Paul is and will always be overrated. Derron Williams is also a better pg than him.

  • bleedred94

    @redstaag Actually, the stats, numbers and MVP award do lie. Derrick Rose averages more points per game because that’s his role on his team. Chris Paul can get his shot whenever he wants it, but he tries to get his teammates involved for the first three quarters of the game. He’s also better on defense than Rose. And the MVP went to Rose last year because he was more valuable to a legitimate contending team than Paul was to the Hornets.

  • redstaag

     @bleedred94  @redstaag 
    Haha so let me get this right, chris paul only plays team basketball for the first 3 quarters and tries to get his in the 4th quarter. Chris Paul can’t hold Rose’s jockstraps on defense, sure he’s among the league leaders in steals but he is not a good defender. I’m NBA fan and have watch almost all the games. Chris Paul is overrated. What Rose is doing in Chicago single handedly, Chris Paul could not do in NOLA

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