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Respecting Chris Paul’s game, and other thoughts from Game 1 of the NBA Finals

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You can like CP3’s game without liking him personally.

NBA: Finals-Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

My brother texted me from Colorado after Game One of the NBA Finals, “How do you like Chris Paul now?” The short answer is, “No more than I did before last night’s game.” Like someone from George Orwell’s 1984, I can hold two contradictory thoughts in my head at the same time. With CP3, those thoughts can be “Wow, this guy is a very good basketball player,” and “I don’t like him”. Just like I can like players who aren’t very good (in the NBA sense — they are still better than 99.3% of the world), I can also not like players who are very good. To pick a name at random, James Harden.

However, I have to acknowledge it is harder to dislike Chris Paul than Harden. Harden’s game is infuriating — the lack of effort on defense (much of the time), plus the endless dribbling back and forth between his legs while his teammates stand around, before travelling/side-stepping into a three pointer and/or jumping sideways into the defender who has dared to contest the shot. While Paul has some of that — the incessant trying to draw fouls and the flopping — his game is not itself unpleasant. As demonstrated against the Bucks and in Game 6 against the injured Clippers, Paul completely understands the game. He knows who to exploit on defense and how to do it. He gets other players involved, including the Suns’ young center Deandre Ayton and young scorer Devin Booker. He plays outstanding defense, and he cares about it. He may have even become a better teammate than he used to be, although Ayton’s description of Paul’s tongue-lashings make that doubtful. And while he continues to try to bait the referees into calling phantom fouls and technical, Paul doesn’t argue every call as he used to do on the Clippers (along with the rest of that whiny squad and their coach).

In summary, I really respect Paul’s basketball skills and knowledge. I am still rooting against him, and for the Bucks, whose own star earned a lot of respect from everyone with his rapid recovery from his knee injury to make a surprising appearance in Game One. And while Giannis Antetokuonmpo played well for a guy coming back from a hyper-extended knee, he was clearly not full speed, other than that remarkable block from behind. He clearly has the most important part of defense: caring — unlike the rest of the Bucks on this play after Paul stripped Jrue Holiday of the ball and led a 3 on 1 break the other way, that then became 4-on-1. Just look at this screen shot and see how many Bucks crossed half-court:

Other thoughts

  • Long-time readers know how much I like looking at box-scores and how much information is hidden in there. After Game One, I went to the box score thinking it would should that the Suns out-shot the Bucks from the floor. I was wrong. Instead, a cursory look at the box score showed a much closer game than the eye test suggested. For instance, the Bucks shot 40 for 88 for the game, virtually identical to the Suns 41 for 88. But the Bucks made 16 three-pointers to the Suns 9, easily cancelling out the Suns’ extra field goal. Similarly, the Bucks’ 9 offensive rebounds to the Suns’ 6, essentially cancelling out the Suns’ four fewer turnovers (13 – 9). The missing statistic cancelling out this seemingly even game? Free throws. Not only did the Bucks send the Suns to the line for 26 free throws, the Bucks played terrible free throw defense, “allowing” the Suns to make their first 25 before missing the last one. By contrast, the Bucks made just 9 of 16.
  • Jrue Holiday needs to play better on both ends of the court. After playing an outstanding two-way game to close out the Atlanta Hawks, he made only 4 shots in 40 minutes, with no three-pointers. Perhaps even worse, this First Team All-Defense player had no steals or blocks, and spent very little time defending Paul as he torched many Buck defenders. I would love to see Holiday take Paul in Game Two and tell everyone that this his man, “Do Not Switch”. Otherwise, Bucks’ fans will have to watch more endless replays of Brook Lopez unsuccessfully defending Paul. (Lopez played only 23 minutes, but my memory of this game tells me he “covered” Paul the entire game after switching onto him three-hundred times.)
  • While I was disappointed that Jeff Van Gundy did not lose his mind on the 3-on-1 break highlighted above, he did a good job pointing out that Kareem Abdul Jabbar should be in many more G.O.A.T. discussions. Later in the game, ABC ran a graphic that helped show just how good Kareem was. This graphic shows how good Kareem was in his first Finals game, in 1970:

What the graphic didn’t show was that Kareem was Finals MVP fifteen years later, at age 38, in 1985, at the height of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry. Think about that. A 38-year-old guy won the Finals MVP in which Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale were in their prime, and a decade younger than Kareem.