Writhing in pain, clutching at his right hamstring from the floor, the Houston Rockets’ Chris Paul watched helplessly as the game—and possibly the Western Conference Finals—moved on without him. For a player whose entire modus operandi is control, Paul’s greatest suffering might be having it taken from him.
The Rockets point guard has already been ruled out for Game 6 with a hamstring injury suffered in Game 5, ending his night after scoring 20 points with six assists; doing most of his damage in the second half to propel Houston to a 98-84 victory over the Golden State Warriors.
After failing to advance past the Western Conference Semifinals throughout his career, Chris Paul has Houston one game away from the NBA Finals, putting the Rockets on par with the Warriors.
As late as the fourth quarter of Game 5, the Warriors retained an aura of inevitability most thought impossible to puncture. Believing in the Rockets took an act of faith.
The Point God delivered.
Chris Paul has worn that moniker well throughout his career. He plays as if the game of basketball was born of intelligent design and his fingerprints are all over the RNA and DNA of every possession. Highlights, by this faith, cannot have arisen by chance but are designed and created by some intelligent entity.
The irony of it all is, for a Point God, no superstar is more mortal than Chris Paul. At 6-foot tall and 175 pounds, with a frame not chiseled by the gods, Paul looks more the part of the everyman than even Stephen Curry, whose appeal to young fans stems from a game with the illusion of being more accessible.
Paul lacks Curry’s Zeus-like thunderbolts or LeBron James’ combination of Hercules’ strength and Athena’s wisdom. He’s not like Russell Westbrook, whose transition forays to the rim bring to mind Ares on his chariot pulled by fire-breathing stallions.
Once, long ago, he possessed Hermes’ speed. In New Orleans, Chris Paul was possibly the quickest point guard in the NBA. A combination of lightning speed with surprising strength and supernatural instincts made it physically impossible to stay in front of him. From DraftExpress’ 2005 draft profile of Paul out of Wake Forest:
“Dynamic, Explosive, Electric, Dominant…only a few of the words used to describe Chris Paul's game. Paul is one of the better all-around PG prospects to come along in the past decade, and there isn't much about his game that isn't a strength.
The first thing you notice about Paul is his explosiveness with the ball. There really isn't anybody that can stop him from getting to the basket, with his dynamite first step and ability to get the ball above the rim before shot blockers can alter it…
Paul is a master of things like splitting defenders, and changing pace to gain that miniscule opening he needs.
While he certainly has the open court speed of a TJ Ford, Dee Brown, or Raymond Felton, none of those point guards break down the defense off the dribble and consistently get to the basket as effectively as Chris Paul.”
Chris Paul YAMS on Dwight Howard! (2006) pic.twitter.com/ay8puNIoYP
— ThrowbackHoops (@ThrowbackHoops) May 25, 2018
But injuries (notably a torn meniscus that required removal in 2010) and time have faded these attributes to something shy of superhuman at the age of 33. If Chris Paul still possesses a super power, it’s one very few would think of among the long list of fantastical abilities.
As once described by San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich:
“His balance is just incredible to me, all the different bod positions he’s in and the way he handles the ball. Whatever he does, spinning, moving, cutting, faking, he’s on balance to pull up and shoot or deliver a pass.”
Balance isn’t a gift given to cosmic being. The only comic book character to wield it as a “power” to make it to the big screen is Daredevil, a street-level vigilante often left out of large scale storylines. But it’s an ability Paul uses to great affect.
Chris Paul’s footwork is pristine. When he sizes a defender up, it’s in short, choppy steps. And when he moves sideways, it’s simply a quick shuffle. The point of it all is his feet are almost always parallel and on the floor simultaneously, ready to burst in any direction while keeping his shoulders square, ready to rise up and shoot.
Combine this with his mastery of timing and angles, and Paul is better than almost any other point guard at running his defender into a screen to get his mismatch. And as he turns the corner, his already angles his body on a path towards the rim, forcing a defender to retreat or step forward.
Because of his balance, there is never a moment Paul isn’t able to change his direction or rise up, catching defenders in the split seconds between defensive shuffles. This also give him enough lift to get enough on his shot, even under duress.
.@CP3 is foolin' around!
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 25, 2018
For even the most cerebral and gifted of defenders, there’s enough craft to buy Paul the split seconds needed to get his shot off, as he did here against Draymond Green:
— NBA (@NBA) May 25, 2018
And, famously, in the Los Angeles Clippers’ 2015 Game 7 victory over the Spurs and Tim Duncan.
3 years ago today, Chris Paul (@CP3) hit what felt like one of the biggest shots in LA #Clippers history: An off-balance game-winner over Tim Duncan to beat the defending NBA Champion San Antonio #Spurs in Game 7. Paul finished with 27 points & 6 assists on 9-13 FG & 5-6 3PT. pic.twitter.com/B5gv2rvpCp
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) May 2, 2018
The relevance of that moment to now is Chris Paul made that shot working on, essentially, one hamstring. After tweaking it in the first quarter, Paul recovered to lead the Clippers down the stretch, as I wrote back then:
“With roughly eight seconds remaining in the game, Paul squared Danny Green up with a hesitation, as if to prepare to use the approaching screen from Griffin. It wasn’t much of a feint, but it was enough to gain a step for a point guard who’s spent an entire career wringing every bit of production out of even the slightest advantages.
Unable to shift directions or speeds as effectively on his ailing hamstring, Paul instead leveraged that first step by using Green’s momentum against him, stopping on a dime to pull-up as Green was caught between steps. The ability to create separation was amazing enough, but Paul also had to somehow loft a hook shot over the outstretched arms of a rotating Duncan, the ball kissing softly off the glass and settling through the bottom of the net.”
It was Paul’s finest moment, but it was far from god-like. It was all willpower and craft, battling as he always does against titans blessed with more physical gifts than his own. Sometimes, his body wears or breaks, as if mortal shells aren’t meant to contain all of his ability for sustained periods.
Other times, it’s simply not enough against other players and teams with greater gifts than his own.
Paul isn’t god-like. He combines a cerebral approach with perfected technical expertise; the sort that requires an obsession with the craft to obtain. Between that and his greatest supporters belief he can defeat any superstar with enough time and resources to prepare, he’s practically the Batman of NBA players in a league with athletes defenders bounce off of.
He even carries much of the same surliness to the point where, when he lets loose with some humor, it’s a moment to mark in history.
— The Crossover (@TheCrossover) May 25, 2018
Paul is the NBA’s greatest combination of willpower and strategy. These Rockets were to be his Justice League, finally putting a cast around him with enough talent to confront other elite teams.
When James Harden faltered in Game 5, missing all 11 of his 3-pointers, Paul stepped in to help carry the load, hitting six practically miracle shots; feet firmly on the ground until they weren’t—driving, spinning, and fading while his hamstring seized. Chris Paul isn’t a point god. And when we cast off the illusion, he’s something far more admirable.
Now, let’s pray to the actual basketball gods he can return in time to put the fear of God in opponents for Game 7 or Game 1.