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Chris Paul Returns, Hornets beat Wolves
Both teams had players return from injury last night that made a major difference. Kevin Love played for the first time this season, giving his usual brand of tough and intelligent basketball, leavened by unexpected spot up shooting. For the Hornets, Chris Paul came back, and . . . yeah, he was pretty good.
The Return of Chris Paul
Paul was clearly not at 100% during this game. He started the game moving at a deliberate pace and not exploding off of any of the picks set for him. In fact, his top speed only showed up a handful of times during the entire game – on a trio of fast breaks and several times when Jonny Flynn or Ramon Sessions turned on the jets while he was covering them. He also opened up front-rimming his first five shots as he struggled to get his legs under him.
So – most teams, knowing their star player is probably playing at only 75%, couldn’t expect too much from him. Chris Paul, however, isn’t your average star player. He assisted on the Hornet’s first three baskets, and ended the half only one rebound off the pace of earning a quadruple double. Yes, that’s right. Not a double double. Or a triple double. A quadruple double.
Predictably, he fell off the pace in the second half, but he still finished the game with 16 points, 15 assists, 8 steals, 6 rebounds, 1 block(? . . .!) and 3 turnovers. As if we care about 3 turnovers at this point. Chris Paul probably does. The guy is intense, clever, determined and downright nasty, even when injured.
Nothing shows Paul’s unremitting will to win than the last play of the first half. 1 second to shoot. Nothing there but a heave-ho half court shot, and Ryan Hollins providing a little pressure to make the shot a little harder. Chris Paul took what was given to him, and launched his body into Hollins as he heaved up a three point shot, drawing three free throws.
Who does that? Really? With a bad ankle? That’s the fourth time in two seasons that Chris Paul has drawn free throws when the other team was pressuring him at half-court. Who does that?
(Yes, it was a bad call. I don’t care. It was a sneakily awesome basketball play.)
Now that I’ve glowed about CP3, I do have to bring up the fact that the offense did stagnate at times as the Hornets waited for him to do something. Thornton, Posey and Stojakovic in particular seemed more nailed to their spots on the perimeter as they tried to spread the floor for Chris Paul to operate in the paint. Of course, their positioning did allow Paul to generate 15 assists, but it also had the Hornets lose 10-12 seconds from the shot clock on about a dozen plays as Paul tried to manufacture something against a determined double team.(Kevin Love was great on hedging on picks and forcing Paul further out on the perimeter) That’s something for the guys to work on. Thornton gives an outlet in that situation – a guy who can create from the strong side, if the weak side pick and roll isn’t working.
West and Okafor, on the other hand, continue to develop an excellent awareness of one another on the offensive end. At least twice a game for the past 5 games, West has gotten the ball into the high post, Okafor has cut into the paint, sealed his man on his back and received gorgeous bounce passes from West. Those inevitably end with a dunk or the other team fouling Okafor to prevent the easy dunk. I love that kind of high-low play.
With Paul’s return, Darren Collison got 18 minutes and Marcus Thornton 12. Paul got 39 and Devin Brown 27. (Brown earned every one of those minutes) Collison played 9 minutes with Paul and 9 minutes without him, and was predictably much more willing to drive and create without Paul on the floor. When Paul was playing, he would defer, bring the ball up the floor and delivering it to Paul. Still, he’s a more than capable backup.
Thornton was good on the break, but his half-court offense wasn’t utilized much. The Hornets were intent on feeding Hilton in the post in the second quarter, instead of using Songaila’s and Posey’s passing to set up cutters. Maybe that’s why they fell behind so badly early in the second.
- Emeka Okafor is averaging 18 and 11 over his last three games. After a chaotic November where he was frequently the forgotten man, that’s good to see. His teammates have clearly gotten more used to where he likes the ball on the pick and roll, and rather than trying to get him to score only in the post, he’s been cutting and receiving the ball more or sealing his man for nice entry passes and finishes.
- Peja returned from his personal leave and looked really good to start, knocking down a trio of nice looks. It went downhill from there as he missed several open perimeter shots and looked a little tired at times.
- Lots of turnovers for the Hornets at the end of the first, as they kept dribbling into trouble and telegraphing passes for the Wolves to pick off easily. I think that was part of how the game opened. It wasn’t particularly intense, and the Wolves ramped it up a little sooner.
- David West had trouble with his jumper, but his close work was good. He also treated Kevin Love and Jonny Flynn to a trio of rejections. He’s always been good at defending someone trying to post him one on one. Especially if they aren’t much taller than him like Love was. He also got 5 assists in the game, continuing his recent skill at finding Okafor and perimeter players for open shots. West’s career assist rate is only 1.7, but he’s up to 2.6 per game this year, and over the last dozen games, five assists is not an unusual number from him.
- Hilton and James Posey were not good.
Next game is Tuesday, when the Hornets get to seek revenge on the Kings. Enjoy the weekend.
UPDATE: Check Mr. Kennedy’s post-game Journal report. Plus lots of video: