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Paul Takes First Loss Hard

Chris PaulChris Paul is the epitome of a competitor. He hates to give up an inch, much less lose a hard fought basketball game. After last summer, everyone was wondering if Chris Paul would be happy this season in New Orleans. As it turns out, for the first time he’s unhappy. However, it’s not because of his team, it’s because of his play in the team’s first loss. While Chris Paul had a sensational game, he picked up his fourth foul at the 7:34 mark of the third quarter. He ended up playing less than 30 minutes, and the Hornets lost a tight one to division rival Dallas. As Marc Stein of espn.com reports, nobody is harder on Chris Paul than Chris Paul.

By Marc Stein from ESPN.com

Those of you waiting for the first glimpses of Chris Paul’s unhappiness this season finally got some Monday night, albeit in a completely different vein than so many projected. It was all directed at the same guy.Himself.

After picking up two quick and costly fouls in the third quarter and going scoreless in a hesitant fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks’ packed paint when he got back in, Paul trudged onto the team bus with unmistakable disgust, insisting that the last unblemished record in the NBA this season has perished mostly because of his bad choices.

The double-digit lead New Orleans squandered in the final 7:44. The 25 3-pointers they were lured into hoisting as a team by the Mavs’ improving zone. The foul trouble that kept the Hornets’ floor leader on the bench for nearly 10 crucial minutes and snuffed out the early flow that got him 20 of his 22 points by halftime.

“All that’s my fault,” Paul said.

Not that anyone in the Hornets’ locker room, mind you, was even looking for mea culpas, least of all from Paul.

If any team or star player out there can be pardoned for an off night, CP3 and his Hornets had to be first in line. They stayed unbeaten for a full 20 days, leaving behind an offseason of franchise-wide uncertainty and upheaval — and then a dreadful preseason — by winning their first eight games and shaming prognosticators all over the NBA map.

“We knew at some point,” Hornets forward David West conceded after this 98-95 defeat, “that everything wasn’t going to click in our favor.”

The reality, furthermore, is that the Mavericks had a lot to do with the lack of fourth-quarter clicking that dropped the Hornets to 8-1, merging a clutch late flurry of six 3-pointers with another dose of the unheralded D that has launched Dallas (7-2) to its own promising start despite the injury absence of explosive guard Roddy Beaubois and, more recently, Caron Butler. Yet it’s likewise no exaggeration to say that the Hornets’ arrival as the NBA’s last remaining team without a loss, combined with the thrilling finish and the resultant raucous crowd, made this the first real basketball night of the season in Big D.

It’s been far more of a baseball town lately, thanks understandably to the Rangers’ first-ever run to the World Series as well as the Cowboys’ panic-inducing freefall. Even the Mavs’ home win last Monday night over the  might Boston Celtics, also clinched by a fourth-quarter defensive stand, had been consigned to afterthought status, largely because the Cowboys fired coach Wade Phillips earlier that day.

One week later? The ousted Phillips himself was in the building to see what the Mavs could do with the all-new Hornets and especially Paul, who eventually did ease up on himself long enough to reflect favorably on a start no one saw coming.

“It’s been real enjoyable,” Paul said. “Just the fact that I’m back playing. Sitting out [37 games] last season was real hard for me.”

Fears about keeping Paul happy have hung over the Hornets for months, after a summer dominated by stories about his looming free agency in July 2012 and Paul’s first-time disclosure to ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard that he’d be open to a trade if the Hornets were not prepared to spend what it takes to get back to Western Conference contention.

Perhaps no team, then, needed a fast start more than New Orleans, where a rookie coach (Monty Williams) and rookie GM (Dell Demps) have been trying to convince Paul that they have the system and the plan to build a winner around him, despite their lack of experience and the various handicaps that the Hornets face as a small-market team.

Yet it turns out that Paul needed a fast start more than anyone knew, too. For his psyche.

“Like I’ve said, this was a crazy summer,” Paul said. “But I tell people all the time that I wasn’t thinking this summer about all the rumors and stuff. My biggest thing was my [surgically repaired left] knee. I was questioning if I’d ever be able to be me again.

“I’m still a work in progress, but I’m just glad that I can play. There were times this summer where I was like, ‘Man, is my knee ever going to let me play basketball again?’ That’s what I was worried about. I wasn’t worried about the rumors.”

And now?

“I’m so much more relaxed,” he said.

Eight straight wins to open the schedule and his supremely efficient play at the point — Paul entered Monday’s game shooting nearly 51 percent from the floor, 46.2 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent from the free-throw line — have clearly calmed things down for everyone associated with the Hornets.

The focus, at least for now, has shifted to everything happening around Paul. One example is management’s unquestioned determination to make at least one significant trade this season (perhaps by combining Peja Stojakovic’s expiring contract and second-year guard Marcus Thornton) that gives CP3 even more incentive to want to stay.

Another is the impact of recent arrivals such as Trevor Ariza, Marco Belinelli, and Willie Green, which prompted Paul’s former teammate Tyson Chandler to say: “They’re actually deeper than when I played there. They’ve got some athletic wings. That’s what we lacked when I was there, athletics wings that can get out, take some pressure off Chris, handle the ball well and move side-to-side well defensively.”

You won’t get any firm declarations from Paul about what all the above might mean for his future. It’s obviously too soon for declarations of any kind, no matter how well the defensive-minded Hornets have started.

But you have to say Paul sure doesn’t sound displeased by what he’s seen … up to and excluding Monday night.

“I’m excited about my teammates,” Paul said. “We’ve got a lot of guys on our team that are hungry. I think we’re in a good spot right now.”

Well it’s good to see that Chris Paul can salvage some kind of joy out of the 8-0 start. While he might be unhappy this morning, he’s clearly optimistic and happy about the team’s bright future. If I was a Dallas Mavericks, I would not look forward to playing an angry Chris Paul tomorrow night at the Hive. Expect CP3 to play like an NBA MVP.

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