By Lee Jenkins
LOS ANGELES – Anybody cruising downtown Los Angeles on Sunday morning, either up early or out late, might have spotted a four-time All Star strolling wide-eyed through the city streets. Chris Paul bypassed the team bus and walked from his hotel to Staples Center, to remind himself what the playoffs feel like, and try to channel some of the energy in the air. “It was the excitement of basketball,” he said.
By his own admission, Paul’s season has been pedestrian. He averaged the fewest points (15.8 per game) of his career and fewest assists (9.8) in four years. He looked less explosive than he used to be, having undergone knee surgery last winter, and less aggressive. He claimed that he was waiting to pick his spots, but often times, he didn’t attack until it was too late. Young point guards like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook seemed to pass him by. “I struggled all season long,” Paul said. Then he added the caveat that veterans invoke every April: “The regular season doesn’t matter.”
While the NBA waited for the Lakers to flip the proverbial switch, as if there would be a pre-game ceremony featuring a giant electrical outlet, Paul was the only one who turned the electricity on. He sandbagged the sandbaggers with a combination of crossovers, floaters and step-back jumpers that left the Lakers wondering who they had spent the past three days watching on film. This was Paul, circa 2008, when he led the Hornets to 56 wins and ran figure-eights around the Mavericks in the first round.
These Hornets staggered into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, without David West, having gone 0-4 against the Lakers this season. They were by far the most popular pick in the Western Conference for a sweep. The Hornets were dwarfed by the Lakers front line, and supposedly doomed as a result, but Paul convinced them that quickness can trump size. He dashed into the lane as easily as he ambled to the arena and the Hornets improbably outscored the Lakers in the paint en route to a 109-100 win in Game 1.
Monty Williams, the Hornets rookie head coach, admits that he has shoehorned Paul into too many sets this season. “Sometimes,” Williams said, “I just need to give him the ball and let him go to work.” So when Paul turned the ball over on a first-quarter drive, and came back to the bench muttering “My bad,” Williams barked at him: “I don’t want to hear that. We can’t be afraid to make mistakes. We have to attack.” Those were words Paul had been waiting to hear. He scored 33 points with 14 assists, blowing past Derek Fisher like a pylon. The Lakers had no credible backup for Fisher, with Steve Blake recovering from chickenpox, and Paul having worn out all the options, scoring 22 points in the fourth quarter. On one trip, he crossed over Pau Gasol and nailed an 18-foot jumper. On the next, he stepped back from Gasol and sank a 20-footer.
The Lakers knew that Paul was capable of taking over one game in this series. That it was the first game shows he is capable of more. The Lakers are typically susceptible to quick point guards, needing six games to dispatch Westbrook and Oklahoma City in the first round last season, and seven games to outlast Aaron Brooks and Houston two years ago. Hornets forward Carl Landry, who played for the Rockets then, told teammates: “We’re in the same shoes.”
The Lakers give every underdog life. They lost five straight games earlier this month, but insisted they would get serious in the playoff, when more was at stake. The two-time champions opened their title defense with another dud, Lamar Odom and Gasol taking advantage of their so-called mismatches with a combined seven rebounds. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson, upon dropping Game 1 of his final post-season, admitted he was stunned. Williams would not go that far. “Pleasantly surprised,” he allowed. Even when the Hornets were leading at halftime, the Lakers were the more prominent storyline. ABC arranged an interview with Paul, then canceled it because Kobe Bryant bruised his neck while crashing into courtside seats.
Paul can handle a minor slight. He went into the season hounded by speculation about his future, was taken off the court on a stretcher after suffering a concussion in Cleveland, and as recently as this week refuted a report that he was interested in signing with Charlotte when he becomes a free agent next year. Leading up to Game 2, he gets to concentrate on nothing but the excitement of basketball, as he describes it.
He may even walk to work again.