Welcome Back, CP3

The fantastic thing about the NBA Playoffs is the best players in the game playing at their absolute highest level.  In the playoffs, every game counts and the intensity of each possession is taken to another stratosphere.  In the playoffs, the role players become household names, the good players become great ones, and the All-Stars become legends.  In the playoffs, all a team needs is one transcendent player to take over a game and will their team to a victory.  

Coming into this year’s playoffs, that list might have been pretty short – Kobe, Wade, Pierce, LeBron (if his elbow is fully healed), Rose, and maybe even Dirk or Melo.

Chris Paul didn’t exactly come to mind.

With all of the potential turmoil and planetary alignment on the superstar level that happened this season, Chris Paul was one of the very few rumored big names to actually stay put with his franchise, the New Orleans Hornets.  This came as a surprise after rumors that Paul was going to be the next piece to the puzzle in New York or the next star player to have a franchise built around.  Instead, CP3 decided to continue to play in New Orleans and give the franchise a chance to improve around him to the befuddlement of some and the shock of many.  Even more shocking, Paul did just that with the Hornets.

While the players who dominated the Summer headlines were losing games in Miami, Chris Paul and the Hornets started the season 8-0.

As Carmelo Anthony Turns gripped us for months of monotonous “drama” and “will he stay or will he go” debate, Chris Paul and the Hornets were winning 10 straight games in January.

While fellow all-world PG Deron Williams was ushering in the end of his Hall of Fame coach’s career and being traded to an Eastern Conference also-ran, Chris Paul was carrying his first year head coach to the playoffs.

And, as all of those other superstars were grabbing headlines coming into the 2011 Playoffs, it was Chris Paul who shined brightest through the opening games in each series, lifting the Hornets to a 109-100 win in Los Angeles.  Paul finally overshadowed LeBron, Melo, and the others that had been taking the headlines away while he stayed in little ol’ New Orleans.  Paul had 33 points and dropped 14 dimes in his team’s Game 1 victory.  Of all the series, New Orleans over Los Angeles was at the bottom of possible upsets.  The Hornets were 12/1 underdogs and ahead of only the Pacers for title odds.  Considering the Lakers swept NOLA rather easily in the regular season and have a robust 31-4 record at home in the Playoffs the last three years (two of those coming at the hands of the Celtics), Game 1’s result is even more stunning.

Considering this is the same Chris Paul who saw his coach fired last year, suffered through a disappointing season of injuries and ineffectiveness, and missed the playoffs in 2010, it’s mind-blowing.  Coming into 2011, not much was expected of a pieced together New Orleans roster with a solid collection of role players.  Let’s be real – David West, Marco Belinelli, Emeka Okafor, Willie Green and Trevor Ariza are not exactly the Showtime Lakers running with Magic.  How would a formerly disgruntled, recovering-from-injury Chris Paul find any sort of success to make him actually want to stay in New Orleans with that crew led by first year coach Monty Williams?  Very few would have begrudged Paul for mailing it in this year.

Except, Paul flipped the script by not going through the motions and taking New Orleans past Utah, past Phoenix, and past other talented teams into the postseason.  Yea, that was nice, but with David West out of action and going up against the two-time defending champs in Round One, it was a sure bet that this would be the end of the road for the Hornets.  Then, we could go back to the normalcy of offseason trade rumors for Chris Paul.

But, as Game 1 unfolded, Chris Paul became more than another offseason talking point, he became CP3 again.

It seems like forever ago, but it was 2008 when CP3 took the Association by storm.  CP3 was a First-Team All-NBA performer, 2nd in the MVP voting, and led the Hornets into the postseason as the #2 seed in the West.  In his first playoff series, he beat down Jason Kidd like an angry John Shaft.  The Hornets lost in the next round to the more experienced Spurs in seven games, but CP3 became a bona fide top flight player.  He wasn’t just the best point guard in the game at that time, folks were talking about him as potentially being one of the greatest PG’s of all-time.  Then, after a 1st Round exit in 2009 and the 2010 disaster, CP3 disappeared and became Chris Paul, very good but mostly anonymous player, again.  Let’s not pretend we all saw CP3’s dramatic return coming either on Sunday though – Paul had one, count ’em, one 30 point game this season.

But, as the Playoffs are known to do, a little bit of magic happened in Los Angeles and CP3 returned to the big stage.  The Hornets lead was 5 when CP3 entered the 4th Quarter with 9:18 on the Staples clock.  In that 9:18, Paul scored 17 points on 4/5 FG and 9/10 FT.  That included 10 out of 12 points (and an assist on the other basket) with just under 5 minutes to play to take the NOLA lead from 90-87 to 102-92.  Paul did it all on Sunday – dropping dimes, nailing jumpers, hitting floaters, and leading a New Orleans team that tied an all-time NBA Playoffs record with only three turnovers.  CP3 had more steals (4) than his team had turnovers (3), how’s that for some leadership at the point?

Except at the point, position by position, the Lakers are vastly superior.  They have the edge in talent, experience, length, banners, fans, creepy old Hollywood celebs, and any other category you can think of to quantify their massive advantage.  They’ll probably come back to win the series easily, too.  Except, on Sunday, they didn’t have CP3.  Not just Hornets fans, but any fan of the Association should rejoice in a great player coming back into the spotlight for his on-court magnificence instead of his trade drama or impending offseason TV show.  Welcome back, CP3, we’ve missed ya.  

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