As the third all-time assist leader in NBA history, even Chris Paul needs to be told to shoot sometimes.
Lately, the message seems to be sinking in a bit deeper. On Monday, Paul’s season-high 28 points on 9-of-18 shooting served as the catalyst behind the Phoenix Suns’ 130-104 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Playing without Devin Booker, who’s carried this team for most of the season, not to mention a host of other key players, the Suns needed it.
“I told him, I could tell when he came out here with his pace, his tone, the shots he was taking, I kind of knew it was gonna be a big night for him,” Torrey Craig said. “And I love when he’s playing like that.”
But more importantly, it may have been the latest in a series of breakthroughs as the Point God searches for the right balance between setting the table for his teammates and remembering to eat for himself.
“I knew we was without Book, you know what I mean?” Paul said with a smirk. “I had a guy on my team that just scored 58 last game. What you think I’m gonna do?”
That answer wasn’t quite clear for his first stint of the season, before a 14-game absence due to heel soreness. The Suns’ emphasis on letting other guys like Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson create had Paul spending more time off the ball. Following a Nov. 5 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers that proved it was still a work-in-progress, coach Monty Williams admitted they hadn’t been able to strike the right balance between using him as a spot-up shooter while still keeping him in rhythm.
“I don’t have a really good answer for that,” Williams said. “I think it’s something that we have to explore and figure out. As much as we want to facilitate through other guys, we don’t want him to not touch the ball on consecutive possessions down the floor. I don’t think that benefits us at all. I do think we have to continue to find a balance though.”
Paul’s time away didn’t help fix that overcorrection, but since returning from injury, he’s started to resemble the Point God again:
- First 11 games: 9.0 PPG, 8.9 APG, 4.5 RPG, 36.6 FG%, 25.7 3P%
- Last 6 games: 17.8 PPG, 9.0 APG, 5.5 RPG, 43.4 FG%, 45.0 3P%
Granted, both sample sizes are small, but Paul has made and attempted more field goals over the last six contests (36-for-83) than he did over his first 11 game (30-for-82). The same goes for 3-point attempts and makes over this recent stretch (18-for-40) compared to his uneven 11-game start (18-for-40).
So surely after that big comeback win over the New Orleans Pelicans where CP3 knocked down five 3-pointers, he looked more comfortable in a catch-and-shoot environment, right?
“No,” Williams said, laughing. “Everybody’s like, ‘Shoot it.’ If Chris took six, seven, eight 3s a game, we’d all be happy, ’cause we know that’s what he works on every day.”
Despite playing with a ball-dominant guy like James Harden in Houston, Paul said his new role this year has been an adjustment — even if it’s one made easier by all the double-teams being sent Booker’s way.
“I just gotta get used to catch-and-shooting,” Paul said. “I do it here and there, but [for] 17 years, I ain’t never really done it. So it was nice to play with somebody who gets double-teamed. Most of my career, I was that guy, so just keep getting used to it, keep shooting.”
The Suns have been trying to leverage Paul’s proficiency as a catch-and-shoot threat. It wasn’t smooth at the start, as he repeatedly turned down or passed out of open looks. It was maddening for Phoenix’s coaching staff, given that CP3 has made 43.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples dating back to the 2013-14 season, which is as far back as NBA.com’s shot tracking data goes.
He’ll still hesitate from time to time, but Paul is now 11-for-23 on catch-and-shoot 3s. It’s a small sample size, but that 47.8 percent conversion rate is quite a leap from last year’s 35.3 percent mark. Even better, he’s nearly on pace to match his total number of made and attempts catch-and-shoot triples from last season in half as many games.
Monday against the Lakers, Paul continued his momentum from the Pelicans game, going 3-for-5 from downtown.
However, must like this promising stretch in general, most of Paul’s 3-point makes were pull-ups off the dribble. He’s made twice as many pull-up 3s (12) over the last six games as he has catch-and-shoot 3s (6), bumping up his conversion rate on those looks to 30.8 percent. It’s only a slight step up from last year’s 30.2 percent clip on pull-up 3s, but he’s taking almost one full attempt more per game this season.
“I was just happy to see him aggressive and knocking down shots, but taking shots,” Williams said. “Everybody on the team, we all tell Chris to shoot the ball. It’s like, the most unbelievable thing ever, having to tell a Hall-of-Fame player to shoot, which is mind-boggling. But we need him to do that because that’s what he works on, and he’s an unreal shooter and scorer.”
With as often as he’s being told to shoot by his coaches and teammates, one might wonder if an 18-year veteran like Chris Paul was starting to get annoyed.
“I guess it could be worse,” he said. “You know, they could tell you not to shoot it. So nah, I just think that’s people having confidence in me and knowing what I’m capable of.”
Thanks to the last handful of games, Paul has bumped his 3-point percentage up to a more respectable 36 percent after the rocky start. To no one’s surprise, it’s all thanks to a stretch where he’s been more assertive in looking for his own shot.
“Yeah, he shot that thing,” Deandre Ayton said Monday night. “This is what he’s been doing since he got here. I don’t think nothing’s changed, to be honest. I just feel like he’s finally got into his rhythm a little bit. Probably found his rhythm finally, and he’s been Chris.”
Paul has undoubtedly been more aggressive as a scorer, but Ayton may be on to something in regards to how “nothing’s changed” as the Point God rediscovers his powers. Over the last six games, here’s how his made field goals have broken down:
- 16 midrange jumpers
- 12 3s off the dribble
- 6 catch-and-shoot 3s
- 2 layups/floaters
It shouldn’t be a surprise Paul’s patented middy is at the very top, but through his first stint of the season, it was a legitimate question whether he could still get to his favorite spots at the elbows. At 37 years old, he lacks some of the burst, separation and legs under those middies as he showed as recently as last season. Thankfully, this stretch should reinvigorate faith in the Point God’s go-to moves.
The Suns’ big man rotation has been in flux due to injuries, but between Ayton, Bismack Biyombo and the new guy Jock Landale, CP3 seems to be moving past the adjustment stage and getting back to his bread and butter.
“Probably a bit of everything, figuring out how to play with some of the new guys,” Williams said. “He was playing with Jock a bit more, and tonight, it was Bizzy and DA. They know the angles to set to free him up, especially when teams send Chris to his left hand, those guys know how to still free him up. But I thought by and large, it was just him being aggressive and getting to his spots.”
As Ayton noted, Paul is always willing to communicate when he wants his pick, and that aggression coming off screens helps jumpstart the offensive attack.
“[Paul] will figure out the rest; you just got to get a good hit on his guy,” Ayton said. “That’s about it. Roll and just create some type of pressure going to the rim, and he will figure out the rest, whether it’s passing it or scoring it.”
Ironically enough, with Paul upping his 3-point attempts from 3.1 per game last year to 4.4 a night now, he’s freeing himself up in the midrange. Defenses that used to go under the screen to prevent his middy have now been forced to fight through in order to contest the 3-ball. That makes it easier for Paul to do what he does in the midrange, especially when great screeners like Ayton, Landale and Biyombo give him extra time to snake his way into the lane and dissect.
“When we play at that pace, it ain’t much the other team can do if they in coverage,” Paul explained. “‘Cause if you get a hit on the screen, we gon’ figure out how to maneuver, guys will go under. You know, a lot more comfortable shooting when they go under. So when we play like that, it’s tough to stop us.”
It’s all still a work-in-progress, especially for a guy who spent the first 17 years of his career looking to facilitate first and score second. On a team that preaches about turning down good shots for great shots, lifelong habits can be a difficult impulse to fight against.
“It’s a balance trying to figure out when to be aggressive, when to find other guys,” Paul said. “But my natural instinct is to find other guys, ’cause I know I can get a shot whenever.”
At this stage of his career, it’s good that Chris Paul recognizes that. It’s even better when he’s proving he can, in fact, still get those shots whenever.