OAKLAND – Chris Paul’s job in the 2019 Western Conference semifinals is to validate the words of his Houston Rockets teammates, who have spent nearly a year insisting that losing him in Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals kept them from taking down the Warriors.
Paul is failing in his quest mostly because Klay Thompson keeps getting in the way.
Thompson is unfazed by the belief that Paul may be the NBA’s best pure point guard, typically having an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio while also being a legitimate threat to score. That confidence stems from Thompson’s work while being assigned to Paul during the three most intense years of the Warriors-Clippers rivalry.
Thompson used his tenacity and his seven-inch height advantage. The formula that was successful then – the Warriors were 11-1 against LA during that three-year stretch – still applies to the first two games of this series, both of which were won by the Warriors.
It’s not that Thompson is locking up Paul. He’s shooting 47.8 percent from the field, including 38.5 from deep. But Thompson’s defense has made Paul less effective and more erratic than usual. Paul’s assist-to-turnover ratio in the regular season was 3.2-1. With 10 assists and nine turnovers in two games, that's down to a ghastly 1.1-1 through the first two games of the second round.
With James Harden usually the primary ball-handler, Paul, who turns 34 on Monday, is playing more off the ball than he did in LA. It hasn’t changed Thompson’s approach.
“He’s not as explosive as he was in his younger days, but he’s craftier,” Thompson said Thursday. “He has more gamesmanship, as far as drawing fouls and baiting you into things. He’s still an elite shooter and an elite playmaker, so it’s a fun challenge to go up against him.”
Even though Thompson entered the series hobbling on a sprained right ankle sustained in Game 6 of the first-round series against the Clippers, it’s evident that his presence bothers Paul and thus hurts the Rockets.
“I like what Klay is doing on defense,” Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams said. “His effort has been high and he’s making sure Chris feels him.”
While plenty of conversation in the first two games revolving around officials and the defensive impact of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, Thompson’s containment of Paul has gone mostly under the radar.
If this keeps up and the Warriors win the series, it will silence the Houston narrative that the Warriors slipped into The Finals last year only because Paul missed Games 6 and 7.