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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.

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