Entering the first round of the playoffs, my faith in Chris Paul and the Hornets was as steadfast as anyone’s outside the greater New Orleans area. His game, at least to my eye, had no glaring weakness; if I were to nitpick, I’d point out that he sometimes unsuccessfully gambles on steals, and he’s far from being a lockdown defender or dead eye shooter, but he’s respectable in both categories. Then there was his will to win and sense of the moment — knowing when and how to squeeze the remaining life out of an opponent — which were on par with the Kobe Bryants and Dwyane Wades of the world. From this, I predicted the Hornets would not only beat the Nuggets, who I believed to be as weak a second seed in years, but advance all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
What a difference a series makes.
The vintage Chris Paul playmaking I’ve come to enjoy and expect had disappeared. His Mensa-level basketball IQ and floor generalship were now producing poor shot selection and more turnovers than I can count. Even with half the Hornets squad at less than 100 percent, this was an epic, disappointing shock, the likes of which are customarily reserved only for M. Night Shayamalan films. After the first few games, it was apparent the Nuggets were the better, more athletic team. Things were not looking good, but I still had faith that CP3 would pick up his team by the shorts and make this a competitive series.
Then Game 5 happened.
Wow. The 58-point margin is bad enough, but when taking into consideration this was in New Orleans in a potentially series-tying game, the resonance of this loss is magnified tenfold. It goes from the biggest home loss in NBA history to an emotionally scarring, possible franchise-changing defeat; the type of beating that makes it hard to look in the mirror, but at the same time demands soul searching. The Hornets waved their arms in the air and said No mas! and accepted their ass-whooping, concluding that there was no point in putting in the effort, not even to save face.
They gave up. But most appallingly Chris Paul gave up. I never thought I’d live to see the day this happen. It was almost unfathomable. This is the player whose skill is unsurpassed at the point guard position, whose will I thought to be indomitable. Chris Paul was bulletproof. From his high school days when, with a heavy heart, he honored the memory of his recently passed grandfather by scoring 61 points — one for every year of grandpa’s life. From his years of carrying Wake Forest into the NCAA tournament and towards the Sweet Sixteen. And to his first few seasons in the NBA in which he, like he always had, played beyond his years.
This was the Chris Paul I came to know. But he was absent against the Nuggets. His ego, a must for any superstar in this league, was deflated by the physicality of the Denver defense, and he was overcome by the frustration. Not since the ’07 Mavericks, and then-league MVP Dirk Nowitzki, were upset by the Warriors, has an elite level player been so torn down from his pedestal.
If Paul is able to weather the physical and mental breakdown that was this series, he’ll be impenetrable. I just hope he can.
– Chris Le