Sports

The NBA’s Most Annoying Player Is Actually Pretty Fun Now

Three Oklahoma City players stand together conversing on the basketball court.
Chris Paul talks with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder during the first half of Game 4 against the Houston Rockets of the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs on Aug. 24 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Pool/Getty Images

Late in the fourth quarter of Monday’s win-or-leave-the-bubble Game 6 against the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Chris Paul found himself matched up against Robert Covington on the wing. Covington, Houston’s best perimeter defender, has 7 inches on Paul and tried to crowd the 35-year-old insurance pitchman, but the Thunder guard coolly shook him and converted a step-back 3-pointer to knot the score at 98. Paul took a moment to admire his own clutch shot, and as he turned to run back on defense, he gave Covington a “nice effort” slap on the rump.

Paul scored 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter, and he put Oklahoma City ahead for good when he hit a pair of free throws with 13 seconds remaining on the clock. The Thunder won, 104–100, and they look to be the more confident team heading into Game 7. I mean, there were no jovial butt slaps coming from the Rockets on Monday night. Just look at Paul go all Queen’s Guard on James Harden while Danilo Gallinari iced the game from the line.

As that image spread on social media, Paul denied that he was staring Harden down. “I wasn’t looking at him,” he told the Athletic’s Joe Vardon. “I was looking down at coach, and then at the scoreboard, because if Gallo makes that shot, it’s game.” However, check the video, and you’ll see that Paul was … well … I don’t really know what he was doing. It looks like a rather sinister glitch.

Paul has always been an insanely competitive weirdo. As a standout freshman at Wake Forest, part of his introduction to the national stage came when he punched North Carolina State’s Julius Hodge in the junk. He has the reputation of an erudite pest—the kind of talented, undersized guard who can annoy opponents and teammates in equal measure. For 15 years, NBA fans have watched him complain to referees and chew out his peers (just ask DeAndre Jordan), but something feels different about this incarnation of the veteran point guard. His inherent Chris Paul–ness isn’t so off-putting in the bubble. It’s actually pretty enjoyable.

Much of this can be attributed to the circumstances of this particular series. Paul played for Houston for three years and helped bring the Rockets to the cusp of glory during the 2018 Western Conference Finals. That’s when Houston took a 3–2 series lead over the Golden State Warriors, but Paul hurt his hamstring in Game 5 and watched the next two contests from the sidelines as the chance slipped from his teammates’ grasp. A stagnant season followed, and Houston traded Paul to the Thunder last July in exchange for Russell Westbrook. His former team sweetened the deal by giving Oklahoma City two first-round draft picks (2024 and 2026) and the right to swap first-round picks in two other future drafts (2021 and 2025). It was quite the haul, and the message the Rockets’ front office appeared to be sending was, “This guy is washed up and we’ll do anything to get his contract off our books.” Paul has plenty of reason to be extra saucy against Houston, and watching him exact his revenge is a cathartic experience. It’s The Count of Monte Cristo with extra butt slaps.

This also marks the first time since Paul joined the “Lob City” Clippers in 2011 that he does not find himself on a “superteam.” There are no Blake Griffins or James Hardens on the Oklahoma City Thunder, just a group of young, exciting players who aren’t yet jaded enough to roll their eyes at him (plus Steven Adams, who is just too pleasant of a bloke to do that). Paul’s leadership schtick isn’t schtick in this setting, and he comfortably fills the elder statesman role he’s assumed since he first entered the league as a mature-beyond-his-years playmaker.

Should Paul lose on Wednesday, he’ll have nothing to be ashamed about. By carrying a young squad to the brink of the second round, he has already exceeded expectations—a rare thing for this future Hall of Famer who’s never reached the Finals. Not only were the Thunder not expected to be in this position, but rumors also had Paul taking a buyout over the summer and leaving Oklahoma City for an established contender. By staying put, Paul helped turn a rebuilding franchise into the most surprising story of the postseason. Winning would just be gravy. That is, unless his whole vibe goes back to being annoying again in the following round. It could happen, you know. Don’t count him out.

Or, perhaps Chris Paul hasn’t changed at all. Maybe I’m the one who’s getting old. No longer encumbered by the follies of youth, I can finally appreciate Paul’s antics and respect how he has remained true to his curmudgeonly self after all these years. I don’t even mind that his State Farm ads play during literally every commercial break. (Everyone needs insurance, after all.) Good for him.

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