The Rockets' swap of Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook certainly looked prudent through the first two games of Houston's first-round series against the Thunder.
Even as Westbrook sat due a quad injury, the Rockets thrived vs. Paul and Oklahoma City early in the series. Paul finished with a game-worst minus-36 in a Game 2 loss, and the metric accurately depicted Paul's struggles. The 10-time All-Star struggled to find any separation in the pick-and-roll, and he couldn't take advantage of enticing matchups in isolation. Paul remains perhaps the smartest player in basketball, building a Hall-of-Fame career despite his physical limitations. But it appeared as though father time caught up to him through the first two games vs. Houston.
Paul began to find success vs. Houston in Game 3 and Game 4, utilizing a slate of high screens to gain momentum rolling downhill. The Rockets did a better job stepping up and meeting Paul above the three-point line in Game 6, but Oklahoma City's point guard still found a way to torch the Rockets down the stretch. Paul is the NBA's ultimate tactician. Every move by Mike D'Antoni is matched sooner than later. Paul found another way to exploit the Rockets' defense down the stretch in Game 6.
Paul has made a career feasting on advantageous switches, and he did just that in the regular season against Clint Capela and Isaiah Hartenstein. The Rockets appeared to solve that problem with their acquisition of Robert Covington, shifting their defense to a switch-everything scheme involving five capable perimeter defenders. But Paul has even found success against this version of Houston. He's punting on nearly all possessions against Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon, choosing to rather attack Covington, Jeff Green or P.J. Tucker. Covington and Tucker are standout defenders, though their not perfect in isolation situations. They looked a lot like Capela late on Monday night.
"When it comes down to the last five minutes, they’re the best team in the league at it," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said postgame. "[Paul] does not miss foul shots and he hits big shots. We’ve got to do a better job before we get in the last five minutes."
Paul's isolations against Houston's (relative) bigs serve a dual purpose. Not only is he more likely to be able to burst past a non-guard, he also doesn't face any semblance of a rim protector when he enters the lane. Green waffles between poor and passable as a back-line defender. Tucker is stout and smart, though he's only a few inches taller than Paul. Covington is Houston's truest shot blocker, and he's been at times a dominant one with the Rockets. But as the clip above illustrates, Paul is more than willing to challenge the forward on the perimeter. When Covington isn't in the lane, Paul has a relative runway to the rim.
The Rockets truly did raise their ceiling when they dealt Paul. Westbrook’s peak is that of a top option, and he looked like one for significant portions of 2019-20. But perhaps we underestimated Paul’s mastery, especially in the clutch. He’s one of the top playoff performers of his era despite not having a ring, and he was arguably Houston’s best player in Game 4 and Game 5 of the 2018 Western Conference finals. Had Paul’s body not betrayed him, perhaps he and James Harden would have snagged the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Wednesday night doesn’t exactly have the same stakes, but they might as well for Paul. Expect him to be at his best in Game 7.