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Sunday, April 20, 2008
Paul finds his groove in winning playoff debut

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Chris Paul
Overcoming a shaky start, Chris Paul netted 35 points and added 10 assists in his first playoff game.

NEW ORLEANS -- Well, the soothsayers were partly right. The upstart New Orleans Hornets did show jitters in their playoff opener against the more experienced Dallas Mavericks on Saturday, and as a result, Dallas moved out to a double-digit lead.

But then the second half started. And faster than you can say "MVP," a 12-point deficit turned into a 12-point edge for the home team in New Orleans' 104-92 victory in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series.

Leading the way was Chris Paul, who is likely to finish no worse than second in the MVP voting. He'd be a unanimous choice if voting were based on this game, as he finished with 35 points, 10 assists and four steals in his playoff debut while shooting a scintillating 15-of-23 from the floor.

A better stat to show Paul's dominance may be this one: Paul 38, Mavs 34. That was the score for the first 23:02 of the second half. From halftime until he checked out to a rousing ovation with 58 seconds left, Paul had 24 points and seven assists, accounting for 38 New Orleans points. Up to that point in the half, the entire Dallas team had scored only 34.

Paul single-handedly destroyed the Mavs in the third quarter especially, with 15 points and five assists -- that's a 60-20 night for a full game, people. That helped the Hornets outscore Dallas 36-20 in the period and gain a lead they'd never relinquish.

Turns out it was just a question of overcoming some early playoff nerves for the young Hornets.

"Our young guys came out a little too anxious to start the game," said Hornets coach Byron Scott, who added that he told his team at halftime to just relax and play the way they had all season. "Everything was a little quick. We really didn't come down and make them work defensively. We just quick-shot the ball at times, and I just thought that was a little bit of us wanting to be out there so bad and get the series started."

For his part, Paul admitted afterward that he was unusually jittery.

"I usually take a nap every day before the game, and today after shootaround I couldn't go to sleep," Paul said. "I stayed up and watched the whole [Cleveland-Washington] game and saw the intensity of it, and I watched some of that Phoenix-Spurs game and was like, 'Man, this is serious.' When we got out there in the first quarter, just seeing the crowd and the intensity of the game, this is why we play."

For the Mavs, the one question hanging over the game is why they didn't throw the kitchen sink at Paul the way they did in the second half in Wednesday's regular-season finale in Dallas, a 111-98 win for the Mavs. While Dallas was still trapping him in the half court, they didn't bring the full- and three-quarter-court pressure that so flustered the Hornets on Wednesday, except for one possession at the end of the third quarter.

In a season in which second-guessing Mavs coach Avery Johnson has become a popular pastime in Big D, he's likely to face more questions after Game 1 on this count.

New Orleans Hornets
The Hornets succeeded in taking a 1-0 lead on the Mavs.
"We tried to [trap]," Johnson said. "We have to make it much more difficult than what we did. When we trap him we can't let him out of our traps. I thought our traps were much more effective [Wednesday] because we squeezed him more."

But Johnson also said Paul played better.

"When we came out and tried to double-team him, he split our double-teams," he said. "That didn't happen the last time we played them. He was much more aggressive, he watched film and saw what we did to him [Wednesday], and even when we trapped him he kept moving."

Nonetheless, Scott says to expect more of the traps in Tuesday's Game 2.

"I thought Chris did a great job of being aggressive, and we did a great job of keeping our spacing," Scott said. "But they'll probably make some adjustments and try to trap a little bit more [on Tuesday]."

In Johnson's defense, a few things limited his ability to throw the traps at Paul. Most notably, Dallas couldn't score. The Mavericks only made nine field goals in the second half, and their inability to get baskets made it tough to set up pressure at the other end.

Thus, while the focus on talk radio in Dallas on Sunday may be on Johnson's decision to trap or not, it was Dallas' offensive struggles that should probably be the bigger concern heading into Game 2. The Mavs held a 12-point lead at halftime by being the aggressor, recovering nine of their 23 missed shots and earning 19 free-throw attempts by probing the paint. But even so, they only shot 40.5 percent in the half.

And after the break, things got downright ugly. Dallas hit 9-of-36, so even though the free throws kept coming -- they finished 33-of-38 on the night -- there was no way they could keep up with the red-hot Hornets.

Interestingly, the Mavs weren't the only ones doubling the opponents' superstar less than expected. After throwing doubles at Dirk at the drop of a hat in Wednesday's game, the Hornets were much more conservative against Dirk Nowitzki in Game 1. That allowed him to explode for 31 points after going 4-for-16 on Wednesday, but the Mavs' secondary players stayed quiet -- including an 0-for-7 stinker from Josh Howard after the break.

"If we continue to shoot like we did tonight, we're not going to be very good. We have to make more of our shots on the backside," Johnson said. "Between settling for jump shots and turning the ball over a little bit … the momentum swung. "

What may have upset Johnson more than the Mavs' not scoring was that they didn't make Paul work hard on defense.

"We have to make Chris Paul play as much defense as we possibly can," Johnson said before the game, and he was disappointed on that count afterward. "From an offensive standpoint I don't think we attacked him nearly as much as we have in the past."

Additionally, one wrinkle from the Hornets helped contribute to Dallas' struggles. The Mavs got nothing from Jason Terry (3-of-7, eight points) after he killed the Hornets in the regular season (22.0 points per game), largely because Scott brought in Jannero Pargo anytime Terry entered the game.

"Jannero didn't shoot the ball well [1-for-9], but he played real good, solid defense on him," Scott said. "You have to match energy with energy." As a result, expect to see Pargo used as Terry's shadow the rest of the series whenever the Mavs bring him in as a shooting guard.

But there's more than just coaching decisions to look forward to in Game 2. While it wasn't close at the end, that didn't stop us from getting some quality playoff feistiness right from the get-go, with the three most prominent incidents all involving Nowitzki.

Tyson Chandler picked up a first-half technical after playing comically overaggressive D on Dirk on the perimeter and fouling him a second time after the whistle. In the fourth quarter, Paul took a hard shot from Nowitzki as he dribbled past him near half court, earning the wrath of the locals. And in the final two minutes, both Nowitzki and David West earned technical fouls after jostling and jawing away from the ball.

"Just two adults talking," said West, who sported freshly bloodied lips for his efforts (23 points and eight rebounds).

But ultimately, the night was about Paul dominating his first-ever playoff game.

"Pretty damn good," was Scott's succinct assessment, and if the Mavs don't find a way to stop him, the Hornets will be riding their passionate point guard into the second round -- experience or not.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.