Monday, August 13, 2012

Chris Paul: The Sometimes Overlooked - But Not Underappreciated - Heart of Team USA

Chris Paul celebrating a gold medal with the American flag. (USA Today)

It was the scene everyone expected to see, yet the fact that it was anticipated didn’t take away from the scene of watching Team USA celebrate like excited kids as the U.S. defeated Spain 107-100 to win the gold medal at the London Olympics.

Superstars of the game, who one would assume work hard on their public appearance and try to seem cool, jumped up and down, hugged their coach and celebrated just as hard as the athletes we only hear about every four years. And that’s the way it should be. Although it was expected, the team earned the right to celebrate.

You saw LeBron James hitting clutch 3’s, Kevin Durant’s monster scoring performance and Kobe exiting his last Olympic Games on top. What you might have overlooked was the nucleus of the team whose play during the tournament should not be discounted.

The excitement of playing in the Olympics seems to have a carry-over effect with the following NBA season. Playing with the best players in the world looks to help players prepare better than pick-up games and summer leagues back in the States. Theories have been documented that playing in the Olympics has helped fuel players in their next NBA season. Kobe Bryant won an NBA title, and an NBA Finals MVP award, after the 2008 Olympics. The same happened for Michael Jordan and the Bulls following the appearance of the Dream Team in 1992. The rest of the offseason will now be spent determining who will use the Olympic experience to shine in the Association this year.

Team USA’s three-headed monster of LeBron, Durant and Kobe will be obvious front runners. LeBron proved he is the best player in the world, Durant can drain shots from every spot on the floor in any country and Kobe still has that killer instinct that paralyzes opponents. They all are expected to explode in the NBA this season.

Organizing the gold-medal winners was Chris Paul; you know, that guy who made sure LeBron, Durant and Kobe had the ball where they needed to so they could put up those great performances. Paul may have flown under the radar, but was not unnoticed. Paul quietly became one of the most important pieces for the squad, coming up big when his team needed it most. The best example came when you might expect it, with 50 seconds remaining in the gold-medal game against Spain. After crossing-over a defender, Paul flipped in a layup just before the shot clock expired, all while the U.S. clung to a lead in the final minute of the game. The play was a dagger into Spain’s back that made Coach K jump in excitement something Mike Krzyzewski rarely does and epitomized Paul’s role and worth to the team.

Paul scored 11 points, dished out two assists and added three steals in the gold-medal game, which are numbers that won’t make your jaw drop to the floor. But sometimes what you see when watching the game doesn’t show up on the stat line. Paul made big plays at big moments throughout the Olympics, but also knew how to best use the Goliaths of basketball playing with him in USA jerseys. His 11 points came on only nine shots, meaning Paul was two things you love to see in true point guards. He was consistent and effective, taking good shots when he had them and making plays for his teammates when he didn’t. Paul didn’t need to score 25 points per game for Team USA to sweep the competition, and his understanding of his role and how to play within that role made that team better.

So while Durant and LeBron will come back to their respective teams and light up the competition, don’t be surprised if you see great play out of Chris Paul this NBA season. The transition period should be complete after a full season with the Clippers, and Paul will look to make the same type of plays with high-flyer Blake Griffin as he did with his Olympic teammates.

Don’t let the stats fool you. Paul may not lead the league in scoring, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of his performance. The rewards he is reaping from a successful stint as Team USA’s floor general can only be a positive when he returns to Los Angeles. Paul will have more confidence, experience and a better understanding of how his international counterparts in the NBA play the game.

It’s amazing what a little gold can do for a player’s motivation.

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