Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Chris Paul already helping to solve Warriors’ biggest Achilles heel, even in season-opening loss to Suns

SAN FRANCISCO — Over the last three seasons, the Warriors are 2-46 when Steph Curry is minus-5 or worse in the box score. Unfortunately for them, that trend didn’t change on Tuesday.

But, until the final whistle, it at least seemed like the Warriors would do what has been unimaginable for them in recent years: Win when Curry has a bad game.

The term “bad game” is, of course, relative when you’re referencing one of the greatest basketball players to ever grace the Earth. Curry scored 27 points in the Warriors’ 108-104 season-opening loss to the Phoenix Suns, but he went just 8 for 20 from the field, including 4 of 14 from 3-point range. At the end of the night, there was a glaring minus-9 in the box score next to his name, which normally spells disaster for Golden State.

There’s a new Warrior in the Bay, however, and Chris Paul showed in his debut why winning the non-Curry minutes may no longer be a pipe dream.

“Chris is so, so good,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after the loss. “The way he controls the game, hits big shots when you need him. He gives us a different dimension now — just his point guard mentality.”

Paul, used to more pick-and-roll and a slower pace, is still adjusting to the Warriors’ controlled chaos on offense. But, as he showed on Tuesday, Paul’s ability to slow things down and control the game will help Golden State greatly while Curry sits.

“He just balances us out,” Warriors center Kevon Looney said of Paul. “Steph with the ball is always a great thing — he can get any shot he wants. But sometimes, when he’s a little tired or needs a break off the ball, or they’re blitzing or something like that, [Paul gives] us a change of pace. You can put Steph off the ball and Chris is able to create shots for himself and others. I think that’s gonna be big for us throughout the year so we don’t wear Steph down.”

When Curry was forced to the bench in the third quarter with four fouls, Paul — who had been relatively quiet to that point — summoned his 18 seasons of experience and Hall of Fame credentials. It started with the type of mid-range jumper that Kerr had implored Paul to utilize more during the preseason, an 11-footer from the baseline over backpedaling Suns center Jusuf Nurkic.

A couple of possessions later, Paul drove to the basket for an and-one, and he followed that up with some classic CP3 gamesmanship — refusing to move as Devin Booker careened toward him, taking the hit and earning two bonus free throws. The Chase Center fans, now cheering for Paul’s antics rather than heckling them, serenaded their newest point guard with chants of “CP3! CP3!” as he walked to the stripe.

“Dario [Saric] looked at me and started laughing, and I couldn’t help but laugh,” Paul said of the chants. “That was a first.”

Another and-one from Paul, this time eliciting a smile from the 38-year-old after he hit the floor, gave the Warriors their largest lead of the game at 76-68. With Curry on the bench, the Warriors went from trailing by three to leading by eight. That’s simply not a sequence that’s often been in the cards for the Warriors since Kevin Durant left the team in the summer of 2019.

One of the biggest reasons that Kerr loves having Paul on the court is his stubborn obsession with keeping control of the basketball. Paul’s career assist-to-turnover ratio sits at over four-to-one, an uncanny number considering he’s closing in on Jason Kidd for second all-time on the assists leaderboard. Paul had just a single turnover in Tuesday’s Warriors debut while the team committed only 11, which will always bring a smile to Kerr’s face.

That level of ball control stands in stark contrast to the player that Paul essentially replaced, Jordan Poole, whose wild shots and mind-boggling pass attempts were met with elation when they worked, but with despair when they didn’t. Poole averaged 4.5 assists last season, but turned the ball over more than three times per game, contributing to a Warriors squad that led the NBA in giveaways. If Tuesday is any indication, that number is almost certainly going to come down with Paul on the roster.

“I’m just trying to figure out how we’re going to play this year,” said Paul, who finished with 14 points, nine assists, six rebounds and was plus-five in the box score on Tuesday. “It’s not about what they did in the past and all this stuff like that. It’s about what our team is gonna do right now in order for us to be successful.”

Paul’s impressive first impression aside, Golden State still lost its opener. Draymond Green’s presence, once he recovers from a preseason ankle injury, will remedy some of the issues, but it’s still going to be a work in progress for a Warriors team hoping to get back to the mountaintop.

Kerr said it usually takes about 20 games for a team to figure itself out. In a deep, talented Western Conference, however, Golden State might not have the luxury of such patience.

“It’s promising because, one thing about teams is, you can tell the spirit,” Paul said on Tuesday night. “Spirit is something that you can’t hide, when guys is frowning or mad or whatnot. So, what I’m excited about our team is, the spirit is right.”

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