There were many, many things that went wrong last night. Monty Williams' small ball lineups proved absolutely disastrous for the team's perimeter defense. LaMarcus Aldridge outplayed David West with relative ease. After threatening following the Warriors loss that certain "bench players would need to step up their games if they wanted to keep their jobs," Monty Williams handed Jarrett Jack 30+ minutes. Of course, cue the usual disclaimers too about Emeka Okafor being out and Trevor Ariza's ankle problems.
But above everything else stood the play of Chris Paul.
If you're a Hornet fan, you're probably terrified. I know I am. The guy that was blazing his way to Best Point Guard of All Time status as recently as 2010? He quite literally stood around doing nothing for multiple possessions, multiple minutes a time. He ceded control to Willie Green (who was fantastic), to Trevor Ariza, to anyone he could see. Multiple times, he stopped mid-drive to throw awkward, forced passes to teammates behind the three point line who weren't expecting it. Multiple times, he brought the ball up, handed off to a teammate, and went and hid in the corner till the shot clock expired.
We got a flash of the old Chris Paul for sure. His move in the second quarter where he crossed inside out from the baseline, drove the lane, looked off two defenders, and slipped the ball to Jason Smith for the slam? Surreal. Absolutely surreal. Nobody else in the NBA makes that play.
But that's exactly what makes this new Chris Paul so difficult to stomach. We know his game and his limitless potential. We've seen him drag this team from nothing to the brink of everything. We know who Chris Paul is supposed to be. We may not see it on every play, the way we did in 2007-2008 or 2008-2009. But it's still there. There's a reason Chris Paul is still far and away the NBA's leader in win shares over names like LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant. Chris Paul, from November to January, was still amazing, and if we're being fair, that should carry far more weight than one god-awful road swing.
But to be a fan is to concentrate, to a large extent, on the here and now. And at present, the here and now is not pretty.
4 missed shots on 6 attempts. 2 missed free throws on 6 attempts. 4 turnovers versus just 5 assists. Paul shirked responsibility again and again and again in Portland, and we're left trying to pick up the pieces. Why'd he do it? Is he hurt? Is he tired? I don't know. His attempt to turn on the juice (read: slam into opposing players and argue with refs) with the game over was flat out embarrassing to watch. Just last month, I'd have argued with anyone that Chris Paul was the best and most valuable player in the game. I have no idea what's gone wrong since then. But it sucks.
I suppose "will Chris Paul ever be the same again?" is a mindlessly dramatic question and one that a mere handful of games of poor play simply do not justify. But I'll freely admit that it's been rolling around in the recesses of mind, and last night did nothing to displace it from its increasingly prominent position.
With the All Star break (and, presumably, rest) ahead, is this rock bottom for Paul? In a way, the answer to that question doesn't particularly matter. Chris Paul's rock bottom was never supposed to be this deep, this depressing, this encompassing in the first place. But, to use a phrase everyone hates but that I inexplicably enjoy: it is what it is. We know it. Paul knows it. There's not much more to be said about it. Over the last two nights, we've undoubtedly seen the worst back to back pair of games Paul has ever played. It's entirely reasonable to let ourselves wonder about his knee, his teammates, his future.
But let's also keep in mind- Chris Paul didn't become Chris Paul on talent alone. He was too small, they said. He couldn't finish, his shot wasn't good enough, he couldn't defend. A couple years into his NBA career, he'd mastered every one of those things. As rough as it was to watch Chris Paul pointlessly go after Wes Matthews tooth and nail for the ball in meaningless garbage time after a disastrous performance, the fight he showed against Matthews was classic CP3. It was the same fire that once turned Chris Paul into Chris Paul.
Maybe I'm an irrational dreamer who should have been researching menisci instead of writing whatever the hell this was. But maybe not.
I think the real Chris Paul returns next Wednesday.