LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 17: Chris Paul #3 of the New Orleans Hornets shoots over Lamar Odom #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers as Laker Pau Gasol #16 and Hornet Aaron Gray #34 look for a rebound in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs on April 17, 2011 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The Hornets won 109-101. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
That game was as special as they come.
In the upcoming days, we'll talk about the rest of this series, what the Lakers still have in store for the Hornets, and where we go from here. Right now though, it's tough to do anything but simply enjoy this victory. We saw vintage Chris Paul, the Jarrett Jack we thought we traded for (and, honestly, a lot more), an absolutely invaluable career night from Aaron Gray, and outstanding coaching from Monty Williams. This is a win I'm going to remember for a long, long time.
Where to start?
Well, let's begin with Aaron Gray. It's rather interesting that on a night where he made a very limited impact on both the offensive and defensive glass, he still contributed in so many ways. With Emeka Okafor in foul trouble all night, Gray hit all five of his shots en route to 11 points. Yes, it's true that Chris Paul's gametape tonight should be plated in gold and launched into space. But let's not understate the work Gray was doing on the offensive side. He consistently got deep position in the paint, and more importantly, made very strong seals against defenders. He ran up and down the floor in the semi-transition New Orleans emphasized for much of the night. He showed great hands to nab some of CP3's passes. He won a crucial center-circle tip with Andrew Bynum at the 2:42 mark in the fourth, leading to a Hornets bucket. And some of the shots he converted - notably the dunk over Bynum and the floater off glass in the paint, and the foul - were not easy in the slightest.
Chris Paul said after the game that to him, Aaron Gray was the player of the game. It was, of course, Paul being gracious, but make no mistake - we don't win Game 1 without the play of Aaron Gray. That the team barely missed Okafor - a critical component to the team defense all season - is a testament to Gray's quality. It's not a stretch at all to say that Gray missing Game 2 (no official word yet) would be a significant loss for New Orleans.
The other half of the two-headed bench monster was Jarrett Jack. 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 0 turnovers, and 15 points on 6 shots. That's as perfect a game as you'll ever see a backup point guard play. Jack probed the lane with ease and was looking to set up teammates just as often as he was looking to shoot. But the most impressive thing about Jack tonight was that he was the only Hornet who operated completely independently of Chris Paul. Gray, Willie Green, Marco Belinelli, and Carl Landry all made strong contributions, but their successes were primarily predicated on Chris Paul's amazing ability to set them up (in the case of Green, Jack set him up often as well). Jack provided Paul with time to rest, even when he was on the floor with him. He ensured that the offense's creative spark didn't fade without Paul, and that was critical to the wire-to-wire nature of the team's lead and performance.
And last and most, we come to Chris Paul himself. Since we last saw this version of CP3, it's been a while.
It really is quite tough to put into words how thoroughly he dominated this game. In the first half especially, everything was him. Essentially every single shot the Hornets took with him on the floor was created in some way, by his penetration, by his passing, or by his movement. After a relatively quiet third quarter, Paul came out and did the very thing we've gotten on him so frequently for not doing this year - dominate the fourth quarter.
One of my best parts of this game for me was the explosion of Chris Paul related tweets. If you'll indulge me, some of my favorites:
Bill Simmons: Today's Chris Paul performance should be burned on DVD and shown at basketball camps for the rest of eternity.
Zach Lowe: CP3 just pretty much threw a perfect point guard game.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss: There is only Chris Paul
Bethlehem Shoals: Chris Paul is everything I believe in.
Emile Avanessian: There are, & have been, a lot of NBA players in worthy of being called "great." Chris Paul's in the more exclusive "basketball genius" group
J.E. Skeets: I know one of 'em isn't even playing, but I'm absolutely stoked to see CP3 snatch back the "Must-Watch" title from Blake Griffin. #Hornets
Tom Ziller: Chris Paul is the Steve Young of basketball.
It was almost three years ago to the day that Chris Paul made his playoff debut. On Saturday, April 19th, 2011, CP3 announced himself on the postseason stage, going off for 35 points, 10 assists, and 4 steals (a performance he would manage to upstage just a game later). Since that date? We've seen enormous highs, enormous lows, and just about everything in between. Injuries, poor teammates, tough breaks, coaching changes, ownership changes, front office changes, roster changes.
In between then and now, we've written and unwritten and written and thrown away and rewritten the book on Chris Paul a million times. The ever evolving story had, undoubtedly, taken a turn for the worse of late, the words of the cynical (me) gaining in strength through the corroboration of mounting, depressing on-court evidence.
And then that happened.
I wanted to see nothing more than solid, unrelenting effort from the team in Game 1.
What we got was a performance for the ages, an absolutely magical game that, no matter the outcome of this series, will live in the memories of Hornets fans forever. What we got was Chris Paul.