We’ve seen Chris Paul foiled, stifled, hobbled, and humbled on the court over the years, but until Sunday, we had never seen him so specifically robbed of his faculty for precision. A second-quarter collision with teammate Cam Johnson during the Suns’ Game 1 matchup against the defending-champion Lakers led to what was officially diagnosed as a right shoulder contusion. In effect, it was more of an out-of-body experience. After leaving the game in considerable pain, Paul surprisingly returned in a matter of minutes but struggled to even maintain his dribble when he first tried to bring the ball up the floor. A later attempt to fire a pass to a big man rolling down the lane—a read on which Paul has built a Hall of Fame career—sprayed so far off target that you might have mistaken it for a bit of no-look genius if any teammate had been remotely in the vicinity and if Paul hadn’t lunged after his mistake as soon as it left his hand.
It was disorienting to watch and, we can assume, even more disorienting for Paul to experience. None of it stopped him and the Suns from claiming a 99-90 win, though, or from putting their immediate stamp on a series against one of the most talented teams in the field. Paul was reduced to setting the table after his injury, but Devin Booker (34 points and eight assists) carried Phoenix by scoring every which way down the stretch and breaking the NBA’s most formidable defense in the process. The Suns’ immediate answer to realizing that Paul would play the rest of the game with one fully functional arm was to have him walk the ball up the floor and into staggered screens for Booker, giving one of the most versatile scorers in the league the full benefit of his momentum:
It worked so well Phoenix ran it again. And again. And again. The basic premise of Booker coming off a handoff with Paul around a screen from Deandre Ayton or Dario Saric is so challenging to contain that even repeat viewings couldn’t help the Lakers crack it. Part of the problem was who was involved; running multi-layered action toward Andre Drummond is one of the best ways to get something going against the Lakers, particularly when considering the alternatives. The other part of the problem was that both against that set and throughout the rest of their Game 1 loss, the Lakers treated Chris Paul like Chris Paul. Some period for adjustment was to be expected, considering neither team really knew how much Paul’s shoulder would allow him to play. Yet once Paul started dribbling with his left hand at every opportunity, why didn’t the Lakers guards attempt to force him right? Dennis Schröder spent most of the night guarding Paul and picked him up in a bit of a token press, without ever applying any real pressure. Why not make him prove he could beat real, hounding defense even once?
It showed an oddly passive streak in what is otherwise one of the NBA’s most reactive defenses, brought out by the inherent strangeness of contending with a great player who’s not quite himself. Part of the challenge of playoff basketball is the way it forces players to reconcile the reality of a moment with what they otherwise know to be true. Can you really get away with leaving Chris Paul wide open at the 3-point line? To be honest, we never found out; the Lakers were a bit more willing to help off of Paul in the second half, but even then they still treated him as if he were a threat to score—and occasionally even as if he were a threat to drive. Watch Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was tasked with guarding Booker, on this possession:
As soon as Paul turned the corner on Schröder and Drummond out of the pick-and-roll, Caldwell-Pope reacted on instinct. When a point guard of Paul’s caliber finds a lane, you show help. You take up space. And in this case, you play right into his hands by allowing Phoenix’s go-to scorer to follow through on his curl into a wide-open shot. The Lakers were held back by those split-second flashes—by the moments when they glanced over at an injured player doing anything he could not to shoot and still saw the Point God. Why didn’t Schröder just go under the screen for Paul in the first place, and under every screen until Paul proved he could actually get a long jumper up to the rim? Paul didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer after his injury, largely because he was never dared to. With the way the Lakers were guarding him, he wasn’t even challenged to throw long passes against the grain of the defense.
In the 26 minutes Paul played after his collision with Johnson, he committed just one turnover: that mishandle from his very first attempt to run the offense after his return to the floor. Even for a player who processes the game at an all-time level, that is an incredible feat—and likely the reason the Suns escaped Game 1 with a win. The Lakers had shown they wanted to double Booker from the start, long before the circumstances of the game made that the obvious play. Yet Paul still found ways to occupy defenders or, at the very least, pull them out near the logo or the hash mark just so his defender would have to take the longest possible route to pressuring Booker. It worked. Paul initiated enough action to keep the Lakers guessing as to how Booker would get the ball next, and held enough of the defense’s attention to be a factor. The idea of Paul had an outsized impact on the game, even when the player himself couldn’t.
In the early going, this series will be defined by the tension between the rate of the Lakers’ impending adjustments and Paul’s gradual return to form. Paul said he will “absolutely” be ready for Game 2; maybe, by then, he’ll be more or less himself. Either way, what worked in the heat of the moment Sunday won’t hold up under scrutiny. As opponents found in the 2020 playoffs, the Lakers defense can resolve almost any issue if given time and film. That Lakers team lost half of its Game 1s en route to the title, a trend consistent with LeBron James teams in general, which have gone just 6-7 (.462) in Game 1s since Cleveland’s championship run in 2016. In all other playoff games, LeBron-led teams are 35-14 (.714) and have lost a series only to the Durant-infused Warriors. With every passing game, his grip on a matchup tightens.
The difference this year, of course, is that James almost never plays an opponent this good this early. The Lakers may have more room for error than any seventh seed in NBA history, but easing into this matchup proved costly considering how thoroughly they were outplayed and how many potential solutions they left on the table. Those changes are coming, starting with a clarified plan for dealing with Paul. He’ll meet more resistance on Tuesday night, and thus so will Booker and Ayton as the walls of the Lakers defense close in around them. Anthony Davis hasn’t had much of a say in this series due to a strangely indifferent start, but he will. There are inroads to a more stifling defense that Lakers coach Frank Vogel can take with his rotation alone (starting with less Drummond, more Alex Caruso), and then with his matchups by moving LeBron around the floor to any spot that needs attention. The reason the Lakers are considered by many to be the favorites in this series isn’t because they’re unfailingly dominant from the jump, or even that they’re ready to seize on every unexpected vulnerability. It’s the fact that they always have another move to make.