Last night, in Oklahoma City, Chris Paul turned the Thunder into a Swiffer. Attach all the necessary caveats to that, of course—it's just one game; the Thunder were without Kevin Durant and the helpful version of Serge Ibaka who used to exist before somebody decided he needed to become Walt Williams; Russell Westbrook, Paul's counterpart, still managed 24 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals—but it's true anyway. However much it's possible for an NBA team to be made into a mop, Chris Paul did it.
He started with Russ himself.
That is stark and gruesome. Russ was his outrageously productive self—17 points on six shots!—against everybody else; against Chris Paul, he was Eric Maynor.
And this is before you get around to the 33 points Paul himself produced at the other end, on only 19 shots. The Thunder, understandably wanting Russ to save his energy for being literally the only guy on the team who can do a single goddamn thing on offense, gave D.J. Augustin the job of guarding Paul in the first half. If this might seem to spare Russ some portion of embarrassment, it also makes the broader team-wide humiliation worse. While these guys were marshaling and rationing their various energies, Chris Paul was killing them both—the guy whose sole job was to stop him got torched; the guy whose sole job was to outscore him got devoured.
After halftime, they went ahead and put Russ on him. It was all they could do. And it didn't work.
The downright meanest moment came with around 9:15 remaining in the third quarter (it comes at around the 1:11 mark in the highlight reel above). Coming off a high screen-and-roll that forced Russ and Ibaka to switch, Paul lowers his head and dribbles hard from the wing toward the center of the floor, like he's trying to race Ibaka to the rim. But it's a ruse! As soon as Ibaka gets up to full speed to try to angle him toward the baseline, Paul stops on a dime, watches Ibaka go flying past, gathers himself for just long enough to let Ibaka recover some and leap back toward him, and drains a jumper in his face.
Ordinarily you might shrug at what's ultimately just a 17-foot jumper—so what, it's still not a good shot, you're thinking. In the cosmic sense, sure. But, by this point in the game, Paul had spent the entire night letting the Thunder's energy and effort—the urgency and intensity you typically laud in a basketball team—do his work for him. When they were eager to contest his shot, he head-faked them into the troposphere; when they were eager to help each other, he casually slid to a vacated spot and buried an open three; when they were eager to pressure his dribble, he tied up their shoelaces with those stuttering little hesitation moves, then darted past—and then, when he'd done that, and everybody collapsed on him in that same eagerness to help, he looped a pass to one of his wide-open teammates for a bucket.
The whole affair had an exquisite cruelty to it, and this third-quarter bucket was the larger pattern rendered in microcosm. You can't see the whole thing in that highlight up there, so you'll have to make do with a description. It starts with the eager, energetic Thunder denying his intended pass to J.J. Redick, leaving Paul out near midcourt with his dribble picked up, nowhere to go, and long-armed Russ closing on him. Spencer Hawes runs out to give Paul a release valve, and Serge Ibaka follows, for no particular reason beyond, again, eagerness: Hawes isn't going to shoot a 35-footer when he gets the ball, and anyway if he did that'd be a good outcome for Oklahoma City. Paul and Hawes see what's happening a beat before Russ and Ibaka do: Hawes drags Ibaka all the way to Paul; Paul simultaneously tosses the ball to Hawes and cuts toward him; Hawes does little more than tap the ball back to Paul and let Russ crash into his chest—and voila, Oklahoma City's eagerness, with a little nudge from Chris Paul, has turned a broken offensive play into a hopeless mismatch way the hell out near halfcourt.
Paul, a notoriously ferocious competitor, doesn't dominate whole games quite as regularly as he used to. He's 29, it's his 10th season in the NBA, and he's the size of a baguette, so it's no stretch to guess that the absolute apex of his powers is behind him. He's always great, of course, and has a lot of great basketball left in him, but he seems pretty clearly to have reached the picking-his-spots phase of his career. One spot he seems to relish in particular is the one he had last night: the opportunity to go into some other, younger, more spectacular guard's building and play violin with the other guy's team as the bow. Last season, for example, he did it to John Wall. In a December game at Verizon Center, he put up 38 points on only 14 shots—go ahead and have a moment with those two numbers—in a blowout Clippers win that doubled as the lowest and most humiliating point of the season for Wall and the Wizards.
This time around, he timed it with even more sadistic brilliance. Russell Westbrook very justifiably has been the toast of the NBA over the past month or so, unlocking a new level of whirlwind basketball fury as he pretty much singlehandedly drags the shitty and injury-depleted Thunder along in his pursuit of a playoff berth. Since Feb. 1 he's averaging 32.5 points, 10.3 assists, and 9.5 rebounds per game, the kind of numbers that would make your buddies assume you were playing on Easy Mode if you told them your created player was posting them in a goddamn video game. He was the West's Player of the Month for February, and the West's Player of the Week for the first week of March. He's a fucking superhero, and at this rate, he might just be the MVP.
And yet, just like that, he's also in ninth. Chris Paul is a damn killer.
Photo via AP; video via YouTube