To absorb the chatter on Twitter and around the internet (of which I was a part), Chris Paul is a key specially fitted for locking up Laker ankles and opening shots for himself and teammates. The gushing praise is well deserved. His play in this series, and the two Hornets wins in particular, has been magnificent. His stat lines will serve as historical precedent, his ankle-severing crossovers will pop up in Youtube mixtapes until the end of days.
Chris Paul has embodied diminutive David, cutting down the Phil-istines (Couldn’t help it! Not sorry!), but Goliath should already know how to squash this one-man army. The Lakers experimented with a formula in Game 2 that will be a reliable antidote to CP’s crisp crossovers and unparalleled court control: beat him up, wear him down, make him push himself to the edge both mentally and physically before the fourth quarter.
Kobe Bryant and Ron Artest can’t guard Paul off the dribble, but neither can any other Laker. What the bigger wings can do though, is lean on him, and make even the tiniest action, like jogging up court or receiving a top-to-top ball reversal, a struggle. In Game 2, Paul was able to create plenty of space against Bryant, Artest and Steve Blake once he caught the ball, but often just getting to the ball was an issue. Facing a defender in denial position up to thirty-five feet from the hoop, Paul would occasionally relent, and let his team go four on four. Clearly keeping Paul from touching the ball is key, but this tactic pays dividends down the road, as well.
Picture a quick but light boxer matched against a lumbering brute. It’s not in the bully’s interest to load up and throw big punches in the early rounds. Get in tight, work the body a bit, grab, hold and lean on the speedster until those later rounds. That’s when quickness fades and size remains.
New Orleans tried to counter this defensive philosophy in Game 4 by running plenty of motion and isolations for other players while letting Paul distribute in the first half, and were perhaps lucky to benefit from Trevor Ariza’s first half scoring flurry. Then, in the second half, Paul came out fresh and feisty, with plenty of gas to run circles, quite literally, around the Lakers’ big, bad defenders.
The Hornets’ plan was clear: survive as long as we can relying on everyone to contribute, so that CP3 can take over at the end of the game.
In Games 1 and 4, Paul was certainly productive in the first half, but he earned only one trip to the charity stripe. In the second half of those games, he shot a combined 21 free throws. Meanwhile, Paul has totaled almost twice as many assists in the first halves of those games, indicating that he is saving physically-taxing drives to the basket and other scoring plays for the second half.
Of all the brilliant tricks Chris Paul conjured on Sunday, his mental and physical stamina was, to me, the most impressive. But even he has limits. To almost solely shoulder the burden of shot-creation for forty minutes is a feat only a handful of players can be trusted to perform. It’s a task for a supreme talent, but it also requires an exceptionally relentless mentality. Watch Paul bark at the Lakers and his own men as the worn out Lakers circled the free throw line on a late and-one at Steve Blake’s expense. It’s not just the skills, but the indomitable will that the Lakers must account for.
There’s no magic elixir that can fully neutralize Paul and the New Orleans attack, no cunning tactical trick that will suddenly close the angles that Paul creates, or predict his path in and out of the lane. The Lakers just need to remember that he’s barely six feet tall, and his teammates define the term “Replacement Value.” Touch him, bully him, rotate a few players on him whose only directive is to get in his way, and compete with him for every inch, however menial. That’s the key: multiple players can expend maximum energy to bother Paul, but New Orleans has only one savior.
Paul’s responsibility is massive–efficiently create all game or lose. Los Angeles must make him expend maximum emotional and physical energy for everything he gets, from the opening tip. He may make a few players look foolish, but by the fourth quarter he won’t have the strength to perform miracles.
The Hornets’ chances of winning soar with a peaking Paul. If the Lakers want to ensure a first round victory, they have the formula. The question is whether they are willing to put out the intense effort needed to strike at CP3’s most valuable asset: his heart.