ORLANDO, Fla. -- Chris Paul is playing deeper into the calendar year than he has ever gone before, yet in some ways he seems further away from the championship run that would indicate.
It’s an odd and frustrating dichotomy, for sure, for the best pure point guard of the last decade and a half. Here it is, the middle of August, where the NBA was forced to find a safe space from the pandemic. With autumn approaching, it is getting late in 2020 and perhaps too late for Paul.
He’s locked in a first-round series with his former team, a series that was designed to be tightly contested between the Thunder and Rockets, a series that has yet to see Russell Westbrook on the floor and saw a Game 2 disappearance from MVP contender James Harden. And yet Paul is down 0-2, and another early playoff departure is crystalizing, and that elusive title chase is ready to receive another coating of grease.
Paul’s wealth, as you know, is confined to dead presidents, not jewels. And because he’s prideful and ultra-competitive, that’s what he seeks: the ring that remains well in the distance. In 15 seasons he’s been to the playoffs 11 times but just once to the conference finals.
What failed to happen with a young and frisky team in New Orleans, then "Lob City" in L.A., and a brief-yet-ultimately troubled collaboration with Harden in Houston, seems remote with Oklahoma City where the basketball identity is currently under construction.
The Rockets used a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter Thursday to flip Game 2 for good. Most amazing was Harden during that stretch was on the bench, saddled by poor shooting -- he missed eight of his first nine shots from deep -- and was reduced to cheering next to Westbrook. Meanwhile, OKC squandered a terrific opportunity to invite suspense into the series before Westbrook returns from a quad injury, perhaps for Game 3.
“In a regular world, not a bubble, we’d be going back home for two games,” Paul said. “We gotta take it one game at a time, learn from this game, and hell, I gotta show up. That simple.”
Paul took ownership because he scored 14 points on 15 shots and was never a serious factor. He only had two assists, uncharacteristic for him.
“I gotta do more. Straight up,” he said.
Curiously, this was one of Paul’s finest seasons, given the circumstances. His leadership and wisdom and All-Star play -- yes, Paul remains elite after 1,124 career regular season and playoff games -- became one of the league’s pleasant surprises. After losing Paul George and then Westbrook in a hectic shakeup summer of 2019, the Thunder placed their fate in the hands of Paul, who never fumbled when his three previous teams did the same.
For what it’s worth, the projections had OKC piddling along as an average team, straddling the playoff fence. Then the Thunder shattered that theory by winning 44 of 72 games and finished in a tie for fourth with Houston.
Much was due to Paul, who reported with a great attitude, accepted the challenge of leading a new and disrupted squad, never asked for a trade -- the remaining two years and $88 million on his contract made that moot anyway -- and uplifted the mood and level of his teammates. He averaged 17.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and over two steals, cementing his reputation as an impactful two-way point guard. That’s why he soured on himself after Game 2.
“My guys worked as hard we could, fought really hard and we put ourselves in position and I let this one get away from us,” he said.
Paul’s only conference final appearance was two seasons ago with the Rockets, when he suffered a hamstring injury and had to watch the Rockets miss 27 straight 3s against the Golden State Warriors in Game 7. Before that, he had five first-round exits, twice in his final two seasons with the Clippers, when Paul had All-Stars around him. Last year after getting bounced in the second round, Paul and Harden had philosophical differences which led to the swap for Westbrook.
The ball didn’t always bounce his way. The NBA nixed the trade from New Orleans which would’ve put Paul with Kobe Bryant. Paul and Blake Griffin had untimely injuries that cost them playoff series with the Clippers. There was Paul’s hamstring in Houston, and suddenly, he’s pushing toward the wrong side of 35 and lacks All-Star teammates in OKC.
I gotta do more. Straight up."
He’s on the path traveled by Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Dominique Wilkins and John Stockton, all great players who left without the champagne bath. Because of his hefty contract, Paul may need to stay in OKC until it expires two summers from now and then go ring-chasing (when he'll be 37).
His most recent team, the Rockets, don’t appear all shook up about losing him. They’ve resorted to a small-ball approach that ultimately will decide the fate of Mike D’Antoni in Houston, with P.J. Tucker forced to surrender 5-to-6 inches in the post against opposing bigs. Yet if it’s a desperate gimmick to win Harden a ring, at least it’s got Houston two games ahead of Paul, after they held OKC under 100 points Thursday.
TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy said about the Rockets: “If they’re going to commit this hard defensively, they can win it all.”
That would be salt into the wound for a generational point guard who’s still thirsty for his sip. Chris Paul has fallen behind the pace, once again, even here in summertime, where he always wanted to play.
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