Chris Paul’s internal metronome has never abandoned him. Even as the league sped up around him, Paul managed to maintain his own pace, always willing to take that extra second to make the defense reveal its true hand. Whether he’s securing a two-for-one or bleeding the shot clock down and creating a quality look, no one has been better than CP3 at manipulating time. Now it’s finally catching up to him.
There’s no nice way to say this about a future Hall of Fame player and one of the greatest point guards to ever live, but here it goes: Paul looks washed.
How did we get here so quickly? Ending up alone on an island with Paul used to guarantee a slow death for whatever unlucky SOB was stuck there with him. Paul would rock mismatched defenders from heel to toe before moving off to the side and getting whatever shot he wanted, again and again. James Harden’s side-step jumper that spooked Utah into playing defense behind him? That was in Paul’s bag a decade ago.
Paul’s isolation game, despite being centered on getting his defender off balance, worked only because of the threat he would blow by you. That threat has all but dissipated. The Warriors are happily forfeiting 1-5 switches to bait Paul into isolating against a big man and forcing the kind of contested midrange shots Houston once eradicated. On 44 isolation possessions this postseason, Paul is averaging 0.77 points per possession (PPP) and a 13.6 percent turnover frequency, the worst marks of anyone with at least 30 isolation possessions in the playoffs. (For reference, Harden is averaging 1.06 PPP in isolation, Steph Curry 1.31.)
It’s been even worse when the game has tightened up late. Paul has consistently been a top scoring option in the clutch (score within five, less than five minutes to play), even if his teams’ repeated postseason failures would lend you to believe otherwise. Most of those playoff losses can be attributed to bad injury luck more than anything else, but there’s no excuse readily available this postseason. In 30 clutch minutes in the playoffs, Paul hasn’t scored a field goal (0-for-4) and has as many turnovers as assists (three).
Paul’s struggles with the ball in his hands create a paradox for the Rockets, who face a must-win situation in Friday’s Game 6. They need someone who can spell Harden and create in isolation as well as spot up willingly and effectively around him. Paul hasn’t been able to fill either role—in addition to his iso woes, he hasn’t hit a single assisted 3-pointer in Houston’s second-round series against Golden State, a baffling statistic when you remember he’s playing alongside Harden, on a team that will attempt 50 3s a game without blinking.
At 34 years old with a lengthy injury history and an alarming lack of burst, Paul is likely entering the Jason Kidd portion of his career, where he still provides lockdown defense but needs to play off someone else’s created advantage rather than force his own. Still, for a control freak who has already relented so much to his teammate, it’s understandably difficult for a player with a long history of torturing big men to just turn that part of his brain off when he sees Kevon Looney alone in space.
If he can’t get unstuck and this is a glimpse into the future, the outlook is awfully bleak: Paul is owed $124 million over the next three seasons at the league’s most oversaturated position, and it’s unclear whether Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta will dip into the luxury tax. It’s hard to envision a scenario where Paul doesn’t help his team on the floor—he’s too good defensively—but that doesn’t prohibit his contract from becoming a roadblock to Houston’s championship aspirations, either.
After years of brilliant performances in meaningless regular-season games that time has washed away, it’s fitting that Paul will get one of his last chances at a legacy-defining moment while he still has enough sway to make it one. One year after Paul was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Warriors took the final two games of the Western Conference finals, the Rockets, though down 3-2, have a golden opportunity with Kevin Durant now slated to miss the rest of the series due to injury.
The scene is perfectly set. His teammates have shown that they are going to give him the ball down the stretch, and Golden State will dare him to beat them. Paul has always relished the big moment. Now, more than ever before, he needs one.