The Z Report

Lance Zierlein: Chris Paul - the hero we needed

Lance Zierlein: Chris Paul - the hero we needed
The Rockets might be James Harden's team, but Chris Paul (left) stepped up when needed the most. Tim Warren/Getty Images

This past January, I was lucky enough to be invited to a lunch that included Chris Paul. This was a small group of nine people who were basically gathered to act in an advisory role. When it was Paul’s turn to speak, it didn’t take long to recognize how special he was and why he was going to be the reason that this year could be different for the Rockets.

Paul is ball. All ball, all the time. He plays his game that night and then comes home and grabs a quick bite with his wife while watching games he has recorded from that evening. He’s looking for tells and advantages. How quickly does each referee allow players to get the ball so they can in-bound it after out of bounds plays? Which players loaf back on defense that he can exploit with hit-aheads? How do different point guards defend different scenarios offensively? He looks for any advantage he can find so he can exploit it. All he cares about is winning.

Paul works overtime to keep himself in shape and fight off the nagging injuries that come with playing in the league as long as he’s played. I could tell at that luncheon that he understood what his role with the Rockets was going to be and he needed to be as ready as possible to fulfill that role in an attempt to fulfill this team’s potential in the postseason. Paul stepped into a situation where James Harden was the established alpha, but Paul has been able to establish himself as a leader as well without stepping on Harden’s toes.

Altering his role

Paul has been able to acquiesce to Harden for most of the season, but he’s proven to be ready to pick up the slack at a moment’s notice whenever Harden has faltered. That selflessness combined with readiness is an extremely rare trait for a star to possess and it takes a special player who is obsessed with winning to be able to pack and unpack his ego as needed for his team to succeed.

Paul’s performance in eliminating the Jazz from the playoffs was a microcosm of his presence this season. Sure, Harden has had a tremendous  year and should win his first ever MVP, but there was Paul ready to hit the accelerator when needed. In the second half with the game slipping away, all that preparation, all that work to keep his body right, and all that mental toughness manifested themselves in a game to remember.

In a way, he has been the Clyde Drexler to Harden’s Hakeem Olajuwon. Drexler played his role in the background, but when it was time to step up, he could take over different games which helped push the Rockets to a championship in 1994-1995. Chris Paul’s importance as a secondary ball-handler and primary scorer was on display in Game 5, but his preparation, will to win, and leadership ability could end up having a long-lasting impact on James Harden.

Netflix recommendation

One of my favorite things that has happened over the past six years is the proliferation of stand-up comedian specials on Netflix. You guys all know how bossy Netflix is. You can’t open up Netflix without it telling you about five new shows that they are sure you will like. Now I’m not saying that Netflix doesn’t have a feel for what I like because it does. Netflix recommended John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous to me and now I’m recommending it to you. I’ve always loved Mulaney’s comedy but this one had me laughing out loud with my headphones on while eating a beef shawarma plate and watching on my ipad. High praise.

 

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Astros lose to Braves, 6-2. Composite Getty Image.

Reynaldo López struck out seven over six scoreless innings, Orlando Arcia homered and the Atlanta Braves won their third straight, 6-2 over the Houston Astros on Tuesday night.

López (2-0) allowed four hits and walked one in his third straight sterling outing to start the season.

“It’s like I’ve always said, for me, the important thing is to focus,” López said through an interpreter. “To have the focus during the outings and then, to be able to locate those pitches.”

He has given up one run in 18 innings for an ERA of 0.50.

“He threw the ball really well against a really good hitting club,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said. “Another solid one.”

Arcia hit a solo home run to left in the second and a sacrifice fly in the seventh.

Luis Guillorme and backup catcher Chadwick Tromp each hit a two-run double in the ninth to put the Braves ahead 6-0.

“Tromp has done a good job ever since we’ve been bringing him in these situations and filling in,” Snitker said. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him back there. ... He’s an aggressive hitter. He’s knocked in some big runs for us in the limited time that he’s played.”

Kyle Tucker homered for the Astros leading off the ninth against Aaron Bummer, and Mauricio Dubón had a two-out RBI single to cut the lead to four. After Bummer walked Chas McCormick to put two on, Raisel Iglesias induced a groundout by Victor Caratini to end it and secure his fourth save.

“They pitched well, and our guys are grinding out at-bats,” Houston manager Joe Espada said. “Even in the ninth inning there, we’re grinding, fighting until the end.”

Hunter Brown (0-3) yielded two runs on five hits with three strikeouts and three walks in six innings. Brown allowed nine runs in two-thirds of an inning in his previous start, last Thursday against Kansas City.

Brown said he executed better Tuesday than he had in his previous two starts.

“He mixed all his pitches well,” Espada said. “The breaking ball was effective. He threw some cutters in on the hands to some of those lefties. He mixed his pitches really well. That was a really strong performance.”

TRAINER’S ROOM

Braves: 2B Ozzie Albies was placed on the 10-day injured list with a broken right big toe. IF David Fletcher had his contract selected from Triple-A Gwinnett to take Albies’ place on the roster.

Astros: RHP Justin Verlander (right shoulder inflammation) threw a side session Tuesday, but Houston will wait until Wednesday to see how Verlander feels before deciding whether he will make his first start this weekend against the Nationals, Espada said. ... RHP Luis Garcia (right elbow surgery) threw around 20-25 pitches off the bullpen mound, and RHP José Urquidy (right forearm strain) also threw off the mound, Espada said. ... LHP Framber Valdez (left elbow soreness) played catch off flat ground.

UP NEXT

Atlanta LHP Max Fried (1-0, 8.74 ERA) starts Wednesday in the series finale opposite RHP J.P. France (0-2, 8.22).

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