Nearly 11 months after the fact, it’s almost easy to forget how unanticipated and dramatic Chris Paul’s trade to the Houston Rockets was. It's not quite on the level of some other “where were you when that happened?” moments in NBA history, but I’m weird and do in fact remember it well.
I was sitting at a gate inside Logan Airport on my way to a wedding. Bored and thumbing through twitter, this text alert suddenly appeared before me and the first reaction I could muster was Wow I can’t believe someone just hacked Woj. My second thought: If you’re gonna hack Woj, you gotta come with something much spicier than this. Moments later there was another alert, and the abrupt realization that Paul might actually head to Houston began to sink in.
I ripped my laptop out of my backpack and cobbled this column together while the flight began to board. It was exciting! By the time I landed, what immediately followed was a tsunami of questions, concern trolling, and enjoyable tension. Could two of the smartest passers who ever lived share the ball? What effect would it have on the league’s “Golden State Warriors, LeBron James, and then everybody else” hierarchy? Aren't these just a couple choke artists?
Despite never advancing past the second round in what’s otherwise been an exceptional career, Paul was about to join forces with James Harden, a multiple-time MVP runner-up who’s smack dab in the middle of his prime, in an offensive system that's had the same effect on point guards that spinach did on Popeye. Everyone involved always had the talent (and enough desperation) to figure it out, but the more meaningful question was how far could they go?
Now fast forward to Tuesday night, when, in a close-out game, Paul shredded the Utah Jazz by being his vintage unstoppable self: 38 minutes, 41 points, ten assists, eight threes, seven rebounds, and zero turnovers. He was efficient, methodical, and patient, relentlessly snaking his way into mismatches, gallivanting through one of the NBA’s best defenses, maximizing his options and opportunities with every dribble. It was a magnificent explosion that felt consequential enough to make Paul’s voice quiver in the on-court post-game interview.
But before we get to what’s next, a quick recap of everything that happened in between is necessary. The third stop of Paul’s Hall-of-Fame career has been without any real suspense or narrative arc. After the Rockets beat the Golden State Warriors on opening night—in a game Paul scored four points and suffered a left-knee injury that sidelined him for a month—their water was still.
Houston went on a 14-game win streak once Paul returned, then found immediate success staggering his minutes with Harden’s. Paul giddily transformed into an integral super-sidekick and helped lead Houston to the NBA’s best record. Aside from the opening-night injury, both he and the team faced no real adversity throughout the year. There was no 8-9 start, and their longest losing streak (five games) came during a stretch in which Paul missed three with a groin injury. He and Harden never had any chemistry-related issues and both treated the season like the ambitious championship run it was always meant to be.
Over the weekend, I went back and watched some film of a younger Paul, five, six seasons ago. He was faster, more decisive, and seemed to dribble even more then than he does now. But the most stark difference had less to do with how Paul looked and more to do with the environment in which he worked. Even relative to the past few years, functioning alongside non-spacers like DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin in a disenchanted Los Angeles Clippers frontcourt, the move to Houston distilled Paul’s deadliest strengths and opened up the floor in a way that’s allowed him to be more responsible for himself than teammates for the first time in his life.
This isn’t the best version of Paul we’ve ever seen, but it’s probably the most unencumbered: He’s posting the lowest assist rate of his postseason career right now, at a number that’s 20.8 points below where it was last year. Much of this has to do with Harden, someone who averages more seconds/dribbles per touch and likes to play with his food. But Paul's increased freedom and willingness to attack is noticeable, particularly when Harden isn't in the game.
At the sight of a seven-footer trotting out to defend him behind the three-point line, the carnivorous delight behind Paul’s eyes mirrors that of the shark from Jaws everytime it appears on screen. He either squeezes by on his way for a layup or arcs a pull-up, knowing the opponent most likely to grab his miss is off balance and 23 feet away from the basket.
His sidestep three is a 100 mph kidney punch and his shot chart looks like a bird’s eye view of the amazon. This speaks to his success and comfort in isolation. According to Synergy Sports, 30 players in the playoffs have isolated at least 15 times, and the only one more efficient than Paul is Khris Middleton. When passes out of isolation are accounted for, Paul’s outrageous 1.31 points per possession is the clubhouse leader.
His volume of iso opportunities has dropped significantly compared to what it was during the regular season (replaced by tons of pick-and-roll), but these are the situations in which a match up against the Warriors will be won or lost. Can Paul have the same success against Draymond Green, Steph Curry, and Andre Iguodala as he has against Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert? Or will Clint Capela’s emergence on the offensive glass force the Warriors to lean on a more traditional big like Kevon Looney, someone who Paul (and Harden) will target every chance they get?
(The Rockets also like to feed Paul in the slot, clear one side of the floor, and let him jab step 10 seconds off the shot clock as a means to either draw a foul or jack up the type of contested fallaway only he should be allowed to attempt. It’s a simple go-to that can be deployed against Curry every once in a while.)
Both Paul and the Rockets have trained themselves to milk possessions down before striking very late in the shot clock, and compared to the regular season the percentage of Paul’s shots launched between the restricted area and three-point line has shot up about 10 percent in the playoffs. Now is the time for him to own the entire court, and he has.
But not all is gravy. Before Tuesday’s win, Harden-less lineups that featured Paul really struggled in the first two rounds, an obvious worry heading into a series that could prove to be the most important either ever plays in. (It’s noisy, but Paul also crushed the Warriors sans Harden during the regular season.)
There have been possessions over the past few weeks where all the different outcomes his internal computer can identify crash into each other and momentarily short-circuit the motherboard, causing preventable errors that simply won't do against Golden State. More often than not Paul calls a clean game, but those mistakes can't happen if he wants to taste the Finals.
In his 13th season, Paul hasn’t been overlooked, per se—Harden’s MVP bid overshadowed his contribution a bit, and he didn’t make the All-Star team despite averaging an efficient 19, 6, and 8 for a genuine title contender—but up until now his genius in Houston should be viewed more as a delicious appetizer than a satisfying meal. Everything that happened before today is meaningless relative to what’s now at stake.
We all know who Paul is, from the peacock strut to how he marionettes defenders and tap dances inside their subconscious. (It’s hard to name more than one or two players who’ve ever held a tighter grasp of where everybody else on the floor is supposed to be, and what they’re about to do, than him.) Paul is godly with a ball in his hands and everyone who understands and watches the sport already knows this.
What they don’t know—and should be salivating over—is how Paul will perform in the Western Conference Finals, in a series with unfathomable expectations and the power to serve as a culmination for his entire career. This is what it all comes down to. This is where Paul has a chance to elevate how he’ll forever be perceived, and in what tier of “all-time great” he’ll be remembered.
Even though Houston’s roster was constructed by a savvy front office that already has an idea about how they’ll approach this summer, regardless of what transpires over the next few weeks, Paul just turned 33 and becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1st.
His window as one of the best players at his position, an elite star worth max money, is already closing. This shot at the Warriors may not be his only try, but it sort of feels like the closest he’ll ever come to halting their budding dynasty. And how Paul responds on a stage he’s never before stepped on is one of the most fascinating subplots of the entire postseason. It’s now or never.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.