Chris Paul is the best player in the Western Conference. Arguments can be made for Kobe Bryant (of course), Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki or Aaron Gray. But when it comes to making a singular difference on the court, of being the one-man difference between a win and a loss, CP3 is the one.
That isn't solely because Paul's teammates are of lesser quality than the others; that is also true, but irrelevant. Does anyone doubt, after six seasons of CP3, that if healthy he could take any team to the NBA Playoffs, even in the tough West? It's no coincidence that since 2007-08 the Hornets have only missed the postseason once, last year when Paul played just 45 games.
That's why the Hornets are dangerous. Because in the playoffs, stars matter above all else, and the Hornets have the brightest in their series. Paul showed it in Game 1 against the Lakers on Sunday afternoon, slicing up the court in the first half on his way to 10 assists by the the break, and taking over in the scoring ledger in the second half, scoring 22 in the final two quarters. He was constantly electric, whether running the break, pulling a switch on the pick-and-roll or taking the silky crossover stepback.
Los Angeles had a shred of success of defending him two different ways. In one instance, after Paul drew a Laker big man on the switch, Derek Fisher cheated up to essentially double CP3 on the wing. The Lakers' rotations were solid, and Paul ended up airmailing a cross-court pass out-of-bounds. (That was one of New Orleans' three turnovers. Yes, just three.) The other instance of good Lakers' defense on Paul came when Kobe checked him for a possession or two. Bryant's quickness and size forced CP3 to pass off to Jarrett Jack. But L.A. can't afford to give Kobe full-time CP3 duty, not in the first round, not when so much is needed from Bryant offensively.
If the Lakers continue to trap and double offensively, Paul will figure it out and break it down; even within Game 1, he beat the double a couple of times. That led the Lakers to abandon that strategy, and that led to plays like Paul dribbling Pau Gasol onto his heels and drilling the dagger.
To defend Paul, you have to commit resources and pray his teammates toss bricks. It's usually an OK strategy, especially with David West out. But there's Aaron Gray shooting 5-5 and Jack hitting 5-6. Gray did his damage on the West Memorial Pick-and-Pop, and while he's highly unlikely to shoot perfectly for the series and might miss time with a bad ankle sprain, Carl Landry and Jason Smith can hit those shots, too.
To look into whether Paul can indeed turn the Hornets into the NBA's Cinderella, consider that while the Lakers played poorly, New Orleans can play much, much better, too. Trevor Ariza went 2-13. He's a bad shooter, but he's not 2-13 bad. His numbers will improve (and, for everyone's sake, let's hope his attempts number falls, too). Landry was just 6-13; he's an ace finisher at the rim, hitting better than 75 percent inside of five feet this season. He was 5-7 at the rim in Game 1, showing he can do it against the long Lakers, too. Expect the Hornets, and Paul more precisely, to push it into Landry more frequently.
The New Orleans free throw shooting can't get worse; the Hornets shot just 23-33 from the line, and were 5-13 at one point. Willie Green, a guard, even airballed a freebie! So long as Emeka Okafor doesn't start drawing tons of fouls, charity shooting will improve. And while Gasol can't possibly be as awful as he was in Game 1, and while the Lakers' bench will improve, consider what mode Kobe is in, and how well that mode has worked out for L.A. this season. Every swoon the Lakers have seen this season has featured a certain No. 24 trying to do too much. With Gasol switching souls with Gray on Sunday, perhaps Bryant had no choice.
But consider this: the Lakers trailed by one point at the start of the fourth quarter. Kobe took nine shot attempts in the fourth, and hit just three. The rest of his team took 12 and hit seven. The Lakers lost by nine. There's a reason New Orleans coach Monty Williams directed Chris Paul to be more aggressive in Game 1, while Lakers coach Phil Jackson begged Gasol to be more selfish. One of these superstars knows his own limitations and trusts his teammates, no matter how anonymous they are. The other plays with one of the better supporting casts in all of basketball, but would rather ride alone.
As the series wears on, Kobe's style could wear thin. The Lakers have done this before -- to the tune of two straight titles -- but Kobe's singular power is degrading with age. Kobe could win this way in 2009. Now? We'll see.