April 15, 2024

Kawakami: Chris Paul can balance the Warriors, who really need it now

There was a Draymond Green storm happening on the Golden State Warriors’ bench, and most of the players and staffers wisely kept a careful distance while a chair got hammered and things were bellowed.

Then Rick Celebrini, head of sports medicine and performance, calmly steered Draymond onto the court during this first-quarter timeout on Tuesday and had a brief talk. After that, player development coach Anthony Vereen came over from the second row to give Draymond an urgent hug and some calming words, though Draymond was still clearly fuming over back-to-back transition passes that eluded Trayce Jackson-Davis and then Brandin Podziemski for turnovers.

Finally, as Draymond walked to the very end of the bench because he was coming out of the game for his regular first-half rest, one player made a beeline to cut him off. Embraced him. Spoke loudly into his ear as Draymond nodded. And sat with him for more conversation as the game started up again.

Other than Stephen Curry, who was busy playing, there was really only one member of the Warriors organization who could’ve had that discussion with Draymond at that moment in time. Who could step into a role that Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, among a very few others, filled over the last decade. It was Chris Paul, of course.

“I play with the same passion that he does,” Paul said of Draymond after the Warriors’ 104-100 victory over Dallas at Chase Center. “When he talks or yells or anything like that, I’m listening to what he’s saying and not how he’s saying it. I think that’s what a lot of people don’t do in all types of situations. I can appreciate his passion. If he wasn’t like that, that means he wouldn’t care. So I know how bad he wants to win. I can have those conversations with him.”

Were you trying to calm Draymond down there or just talking to him about the game? “It’s both,” Paul said. “But I understand it, ’cause people have had to do the same to me. It’s will to win. It’s passion, man. Obviously, there’s always people who are going to say he needs to do this, he needs to do that. But I appreciate him for who he is.”

At some point, Draymond was going to settle down on Tuesday, whoever sat next to him. And once he got back into the game, he was his usual bolt of defensive lightning the rest of the way, including a titanic block of a Daniel Gafford dunk attempt (then a rip-away from Kyrie Irving trying to collect the loose ball) to help seal the victory. He’s done this a hundred times in the past. He did it again Tuesday. The Warriors reacted to Draymond’s raging during that timeout so diffidently because they’ve seen it happen over and over. Most of the time, Draymond pulls himself back from the edge and helps them win games. Most of the time.

But the CP3 interlude was unique to this season and to this merging of such strong NBA personalities and talents. Do the Warriors have a shot to go deep in these playoffs? Probably not, since they’re all but locked into the Play-In Tournament, which means they’ll have to win at least one game (and probably two) just to get in as a bottom seed and be lined up against one of the Western Conference powers in the first round. They are not big. They are not young. They aren’t very athletic. They have made a great run to get back into the conversation, but it says something that they’ve been hot for weeks and are only holding onto the 10th spot in the West.

Still, no top team will be loving the prospect of going into a best-of-seven series knowing that four great Curry games could mean sudden elimination. Or that Klay Thompson could tilt the series with a huge shooting spree. Or that Draymond will be thundering and that CP3 is there to stabilize everything in his moments, too.

None of them are what they were five years ago. But they’re still pretty powerful forces. If they can get it all balanced out in a way that they couldn’t do last season — without Paul.

“Dray’s passion is why they’ve won championships and stuff around here,” Paul said. “I respect it. I didn’t like it when I was on the other team. But I definitely obviously have gotten to know him a lot better and I appreciate it. That passion is why those blocks and those plays happen at the end of the game.”

In these dynastic end days, I think the Warriors’ leaders really need to hear that. I think Draymond needs to hear that, especially. And it’s important coming from Paul, who is in his 19th season and will be a Hall of Famer as soon as he’s eligible. But CP3 hasn’t won a championship and has watched Draymond, Curry and Thompson win four of them.

So the often-cantankerous Paul has the credibility and guts to have that conversation with Draymond, adding CP3’s own admiration for what the Warriors have accomplished.

“He’s just like, ‘Hey, whatever it is you’ve got, that you see, you can come to me, you can come to anybody,’” Draymond recalled of that conversation. “Just making sure to understand that those guys are rookies and they’re not gonna understand everything that you want them to understand on the floor. Really, just staying in that pocket and knowing that ultimately you’ve gotta say what you’ve gotta say and that’s fine, come back around and lift them back up. But also, ‘If there are some things you see on the floor, come over here and tell me, I can get it to these guys on the bench and different things.’

“It’s been great just having that communication, a guy who, he’s a lot like me. Which is why we would fight and get into it all our careers. We’re a lot alike. To his point, that’s not something that needs to be explained to him because he knows and understands that burning passion. He’s got the same thing.”

Oh, and also: CP3 is still a very good player on a Warriors team that needs him in a very specific and very important role. The Warriors traded Jordan Poole for Paul last summer largely to discard Poole’s long-term contract but also to use CP3 as a fix for those troublesome minutes when Curry is resting and also alongside Curry to keep things as stable as possible.

Paul didn’t shoot it well to start this season, but over the last few months, right before a January hand injury caused him to miss 21 games and since his return, Paul has been making shots at his normal career clip and his now shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from 3-point distance.

He’s often been teamed with Podziemski, Jackson-Davis and Klay, which has led to CP3 maneuvering through defenses and carrying a lot of the scoring load for the unit. And he’s doing it. On Tuesday, while Curry got his usual rest, Paul closed the first quarter with a 3 and a mid-range jumper in a two-for-one situation, then kept on going, scoring 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting and handing out 5 assists for a plus-8 in 20 key minutes.

“He’s had a great shooting season,” head coach Steve Kerr said of Paul. “The first month or so he didn’t shoot the ball very well. But over the last few months, he’s really shot the ball well. We need the scoring. He comes in, he generates shots for others but also for himself. It’s really been a great dynamic to add to our team. It’s always been an issue when Steph comes off the floor over the last decade, but Chris, to me, gives us probably the best ability over the last decade with that second group just to come in and take over a game. He’s done that numerous times this year.”

CP3, even at 38, is the Warriors’ best all-around second-unit point guard since Livingston’s first seasons here, certainly the most aggressive playmaker the Warriors have ever had behind Curry and the most esteemed supporting veteran since Iguodala. That’s a lot. And this Warriors team really will need all of it down the stretch, with a gigantic game coming up Thursday against Houston — which could essentially seal up a Play-In spot for the Warriors if they win.

Chris Paul

Even at 38, Chris Paul is the Warriors’ best all-around second-unit point guard in years. And his veteran savvy is playing an important role. (Cary Edmondson / USA Today)

Tuesday night, I wondered if CP3’s relatively light minute total so far this season might make him fresher for this run than he’s been in recent years. Paul is currently averaging 26.2 minutes per game this season, the lowest of his career and significantly down from his 32.0-minute average last season. He also missed 26 games with injuries, so he’s only played 1,336 minutes — he played 1,889 minutes last season, 2,139 two seasons ago and averaged 2,321 minutes over the first 18 years of his career.

But Paul didn’t want to make any concession about saving his energy for the backstretch, which is fine. He wants to play every minute he can. He hasn’t loved coming off the bench this season for the first time in his career, and he presumably doesn’t love that he isn’t often in the Warriors’ closing lineup these days.

He doesn’t want to be thought of as somebody who needs to pace himself or isn’t good enough to be more than a complementary piece. But it’s still possible that the Warriors will get Paul’s best stuff in the final weeks (or months) because his role has been so limited so far.

“He’s getting more comfortable,” Draymond said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. You know, you come into a situation like this, it’s hard. Chris, we’ve played against C for years. You come into a situation, you’ve got Steph, you’ve got Klay. You know what those guys have done. And C is a pro’s pro, so he’s not gonna come up trying to impose his will or stepping on nobody’s toes. He’s gonna come in and feel the situation out.

“If I’m honest, I think he’s felt it out too much. Our thing all season long has been, ‘Be aggressive and use your voice.’ So many times he’ll preface it with, like, ‘I know you guys …’ Like, naw. We need your knowledge. We need what you bring to the table. We’ve had to face that all these years. To have him on the team with us now, we want that same guy. We don’t want you to come here and take a back seat. We don’t want you to come here and always defer to us. Like, naw, you’re Chris Paul, we know exactly who you are.

“That was the reason for the move. It wasn’t to get a guy who’s going to come in and fall in line with everybody else. It was to get Chris Paul. And I think he’s gotten more and more comfortable with his voice, with his game, finding his spots, understanding the playbook and all of those things. … He’s starting to come alive in a major way for us, and we need him.”

This has all been the setup for Paul in the biggest games. To get into the playoffs. Then to keep going in the playoffs. And we’ll see what happens. Beyond that, CP3’s future with the Warriors is in question — his $30 million contract for next season isn’t guaranteed, and if, as owner Joe Lacob has said, the Warriors are determined to get under the luxury-tax line, it’s hard to see how they can retain CP3 and Klay at anything close to market rates.

The likeliest scenario is that this will be a very short CP3 stint with the Warriors. But it has mostly worked out so far. And he could say and do a whole lot more over the next stretch to make this pretty memorable.



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(Top photo of Chris Paul during Tuesday’s game against the Mavericks: Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)