Posted Apr 25 2011 9:15AM
NEW ORLEANS -- This is Chris Paul still working his way back, by the way. That's the reality check for the Lakers for the moment and the rest of the league by extension. He can be so much better than this.
Maybe not better than this, as in Sunday night inside New Orleans Arena churning with noise and emotion. As in 27 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds, as in Hornets 93, Lakers 88 to send the best-of-seven first-round series back to Los Angeles at 2-2.
But he can be better than this. Paul is not all the way back nearly 15 months after surgery on his left knee, and yet here he is, cutting up the two-time defending champions with electrifying performances in two of the four games. This comes after a regular season of leading the league in steals and assist-to-turnover ratio, finishing fourth in assists and 11th in free-throw percentage. So he's not exactly limping along.
He is not, the Hornets will admit, 100 percent healthy despite all the evidence to the contrary in the series. The Lakers are a good defensive team and Paul is embarrassing them by getting into the lane with regularity, either scoring himself or drawing the attention that creates baskets for his scrappers while giving L.A. another torturous playoff start.
That's how it becomes a problem for every opponent: If Paul is this hard to contain now, imagine when he's at his best.
Blindfolds and cigarettes, anyone?
"No, I don't think so," Hornets coach Monty Williams said a few days ago when asked if this is the pre-injury Paul. "He's still a ways away from that. I always go back to the film that I watched on him in the past. He dunked on Dwight Howard a few years back. That is pre-Chris. When he's back to attacking that rim like that, then I'll sit down even more. But until he gets back to that, I'll be walking the sidelines."
It couldn't get any better than the CP3 who played the series-opener last Sunday. Not more splashy than 33 points on 11-of-18 shooting, more precise than 14 assists against two turnovers, more all-around than seven rebounds as a maybe-6-foot point guard.
Then came Game 4 in front of the home fans, which threatened to blow the lid off the building, and suddenly the NBA world was having to consider the impossible that one week earlier in Los Angeles was his second-best surgery of the series.
The new contender for the top spot was Paul going from a first half of four points and nine assists to the star burst of 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists after intermission.
All just a warm up for when he gets good.
"He made a lot of things happen out there," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said.
His 27 points were eight more than anyone else. His 15 assists were seven more than anyone. His 13 rebounds, four more than anyone and the same as Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum combined.
Moving-mountains stuff, that's all, in the kind of greatness reminder of a series that will have more impact than the months of regular season that came before.
"I play with a chip on my shoulder regardless, day in and day out," Paul said, dismissing the suggestion this series is a special kind of bulletin about his health and potential. "I'm not trying to make a statement. I guess I try to do that every time I play. There's nothing I'm trying to do new or anything like that. I'm just trying to be me."
But there is the emotional impact, maybe even the confidence boost of doing this in the playoffs against the best team in the league the last two seasons. There's the knee injury and subsequent surgery in February 2010 that cost him 25 games last season. There's the jammed left thumb that forced him to play Game 4 with part of the hand taped.
Surely there must be some special pride?
"When you get to the playoffs, no one feels sorry for you," Paul said. "Nobody. They don't care what's wrong with your ankle, what's wrong with your knee or anything like that. This (the playoffs) is where players are made. I just looked at it as a great opportunity for us as a team to forget about the rest of the season and try to seize the moment."
He was asked to describe his performance and said in an even tone, "It was cool." Uh-huh. And the Gulf of Mexico is damp.
CP3 put on a point-guard clinic for the second time in four games and practically shrugged it off as a decent night's work. He's got a lot to learn. Imagine once he gets to where he needs to be.
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