Sometimes, a game leaves you without words.
It's a cliche. It's also really the only way to open this.
Don't get me wrong. Chris Paul has had better games. Those fans and writers lucky enough to follow him since he first arrived from Wake Forest will certainly tell you so. He has been more productive, more creative, more error-free, more asphyxiating, more irrepressible. There have been games during which he's inspired genuine sympathy amongst observers on behalf of opposing point guards and coaches. Few of us will forget the nights in Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, or New Orleans that made us wonder if, a decade from now, we'd be talking about Chris Paul, the best point guard ever.
But Chris Paul has never played a game quite like this one before.
The talking point of this series, here, there, and everywhere, was size. More specifically, and, I suppose, redundantly, it was the size Los Angeles has and New Orleans does not. Consider: in Game 4, the Lakers' starting front court combined to equal the points (27) and rebounds (13) total of the shortest player on either team. The games of Carl Landry and Emeka Okafor, if not the efforts of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum themselves, strongly warrant a mention here.
But also consider: whatever the circumstances, that is insane. It is here that the inexpressibility of Paul's game really comes into view. Whenever Chris Paul has exploded in the past, it has come as an extension of his natural game. Where his vision is normally superb, it was astonishingly fatidic the night he had 20 assists in Los Angeles. Where his midrange game is generally on point, it was searingly infallible in his 2008 series against Dallas. And so on. Tonight, through strategy, his team's defensive awareness, and its sheer physicality, Phil Jackson ensured that Paul simply stepping up the various aspects of his game would not be enough. They bruised and bloodied him, they bossed him through tangled arms and elbows on every possession, they drove him to the brink of passing off prematurely, as he had all season, to the likes of Willie Green, Trevor Ariza, and Marco Belinelli. Pardon the use of another cliche I wouldn't normally employ, but the Lakers forced Paul to elevate his will to survive, to a level we had yet to see.
Through Games 2 and 3, Los Angeles had arrived at a solid defensive strategy for Chris Paul - allowing him enough space so as to avoid tiring out their own defenders through four quarters, but also bringing sufficient traps and doubles to prevent a duplication of his Game 1. And through those two games, it had, more or less, worked. Paul went for strong, efficient lines but was ultimately kept from taking control, obviously a requisite provision for New Orleans to stand any chance at an upset. In all probability, the Lakers will employ the exact same strategy in Game 5, expecting larger offensive contributions from Lamar Odom and his long-limbed friends to power towards a victory.
Game 4, from the onset, simply represented more of the same. Admittedly, Chris Paul played more as a distributor than a shooter in the early going, but it would be foolish to overlook the shooting lanes and angles the Lakers constantly denied. Moreover, his performance as a creator in the first quarter was itself rather muted by L.A.'s defense. Trevor Ariza almost singlehandedly kept New Orleans within striking range through 12 minutes via a series of successful jumpers, drives, and finishes that caught even the most blindly allegiant Hornets backers by surprise. But as the second quarter wore on, Paul gradually began to break free of his shell, setting up shots for teammates, and, more impressively, matching the physicality of Ron Artest and the Lakers.
The defining moment, the clear demarcation between settling for a solid 20/10 and gunning for something more memorable came at the minute mark of the second quarter. Paul unleashed a stirring left to right crossover to blow by Kobe Bryant for an uncontested layup. Even more telling was the buildup to the play - Paul aborted his first move to unassertively back-pass to New Orleans' man of the half, Ariza. But immediately, he demanded the ball back, ready to go at Bryant once more. And it was the first indication we got that Chris Paul would not bend to the will of Phil Jackson, at least not on this night.
Paul's second half was, of course, remarkable. No player in the past 20 seasons has finished a playoff game with Paul's final tally (27, 15, 13), and it seems a safe bet that his second half line (23, 7, 6) is similarly unparalleled. Paul followed up his 17 point 4th quarter of Game 1 with a 14 point 4th quarter in Game 4. He was perfect from the free throw line. In a huge moment down the stretch, in a situation during which most elite players attempt isolation heroics, Paul made the play for a teammate. But once more, the thing that stood out above all was the context.
Chris Paul's Game 4 was special not because he floated around the floor, untrackable by any defender the opponent could offer. We've seen that. Rather, Chris Paul was imminently guardable last night. It was plainly evident not only during the first half, but also during his exceptional second half. On a trap on the right sideline, he lost the ball out of bounds, off himself. On a double in the left corner, he threw the ball into the hands of two Lakers. Faced with a rotating L.A. defense in the first quarter, he threw the ball directly to Ron Artest for a fastbreak. With help lurking, even the aged Derek Fisher played a few flawless defensive possessions on Paul.
CP3 has surely been more perfect. But on this night, it was his emphatic triumph over an unambiguous fallibility that set his performance apart from all the rest.
No matter his teammates, no matter his opponents, Chris Paul simply refused to be vanquished.