Editor’s note: This is the Friday Sept. 4 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon, who is among the few reporters in the country with a credential inside the NBA bubble. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When he was asked about Chris Paul, the booming baritone of LeBron James’ voice immediately softened.
The two men were in the middle of league-wide tension last week as the National Basketball Players Association determined what to do after the Milwaukee Bucks protest — and for one evening, they seemed to be at odds. They could have also been at odds on the court this weekend, if Lu Dort had managed to get a shot off past James Harden to win another bubble nail-biter in Game 7.
But both situations were eventually resolved. James talked about Paul not as an NBA power-broker (which he is) and not as a ruthless and wily potential competitor (which he is), but as one of James’ closest friends.
“I was definitely rooting for him to be as great as he could be and if that happened to come with a win, I would have loved it,” he said. “And it came in a loss and I still loved it, and I talked to him after the game.”
Paul’s stubbornness is legendary throughout the league, and perhaps nothing illustrates that like his final stat line in Game 7 against the Rockets: 19 points, 12 assists and 11 hard-fought rebounds from a man whose 6-foot-1 listed height might be optimistic. The 35-year-old Paul is now the oldest man to ever record a triple-double in a Game 7 — besting the old record set by James by four years.
That the Thunder, a team that was grouped together from Paul and the non-draft asset parts that could be sold for Paul George, were able to make it to the playoffs as a fifth seed was incredible. And many expected the Rockets, who had traded away Paul, to cruise by on the strength of Harden and Russell Westbrook, the former Oklahoma City icon.
Said Paul: “We didn’t give a damn about anybody’s predictions going into any series.”
That quickly became apparent, especially in close games: In the four games of the series that meet the NBA’s games for “clutch” situations, Paul shot 50 percent from the 3-point line, made all of his free throws, and pushed the Thunder to 3-1 in those games. He also gave the Houston a piece of his mind for trading him.
Even James, who authored the most famous 1-3 comeback in NBA history, was impressed by Paul’s resilience after preseason prognosticators assumed the Thunder should be cast onto the lottery team heap.
“We all know what the (playoff) percentage is and all the talk was, ‘Are they trading him to the slums?’” James said. “And everybody was like, ‘He-he,’ and laughing about the whole situation and CP and whatever. He showed what he’s all about. I loved that part.”
But the other part James loved — and the lasting monument to Paul’s ability to simply get things done — is the bubble itself.
It’s been pointed out to me by fellow bubble dwellers that the NBA is doing the important work of setting up the event and working out TV schedules and the like, the NBPA is the engine for the restart. Without the support of the players and power brokers like NBPA executive director Michele Roberts (who has been posted up here for months), the entire enterprise would have fallen apart.
Nobody can align support like Paul, who navigated the restlessness in June by helping negotiate deals with the league to create the NBA Foundation, which will contribute $300 million over the next 10 years to various economic efforts in Black communities. He created his own Social Change Fund with Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade to work those ends individually, too. He helped create in-bubble events like a Zoom chat with Michelle Obama for the NBA and WNBA, about her non-profit non-partisan voting group, When We All Vote.
It’s hard to know how much of a hand Paul played in walking James back from his inclination to walk away after the Milwaukee protest, but it’s a good bet he was heavily involved in that, and he was definitely heavily involved in getting the restart back on track with a new deal with owners to amplify voting messages.
As much as the success of the NBA restart can be traced to one man, Paul is probably Exhibit A.
“Obviously we’re here right now in this bubble and the restart of our season is a large part to him and to everyone that had anything to do with the PA,” James said. “But CP was very instrumental to this thing getting restarted. I commend him on that, his leadership, his candid words since he’s been here, both on and off the floor. Just another inspiring person, man. Not only from a basketball perspective.”
It’s tempting to think about what might have been if Paul and James had faced each other for the first time in a playoff series. In regular season games, LeBron has the 15-12 edge. But because they’ve not spent much time in the same conference, they’ve never faced off in the postseason — which would have been quite a follow-up to LeBron vs. Melo.
In the bubble, Paul and James had some time together, albeit limited — the Thunder were on the Grand Floridian campus, a ride away from the Gran Destino hotel where the Lakers are saying. But at least one night, they got together for cards and wine — the currency of a long friendship of mutual respect.
– Kyle Goon
Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon, who is among the few reporters with a credential inside the NBA bubble. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.