When Chris Paul found himself cornered by Chris Bosh in the second quarter of the 2013 NBA All-Star Game, he used the height difference to his advantage. As the Miami Heat big man closed in and reached to swipe the ball with his left hand, the 6-foot Los Angeles Clippers point guard saw an opening for a pass. The path? Between the 6'11" center's legs. The receiver? Paul himself. In a flash, Paul bounced the ball between Bosh's legs, raced around him to collect it, and then drove the baseline. The play didn't result in a basket, but it gave Paul another highlight to add to his reel while Bosh was left frozen on the wing. "Bosh was turned to force me left," says the eight-time All-Star, who would go on to win the game's MVP award. "I saw his legs were wide apart, so I went for it."
That's the special thing about Paul. The undersized floor general has never let his lack of size hold him back. He's unafraid to blow past his defender and drive into a lane clogged with big men. He can shut down opposing scorers of all sizes. He grabs rebounds like a small forward. Paul, who has led the league in steals five times and assists three times, is having one of his best all-around seasons. As of April 6, he was leading the NBA in offensive win shares, an advanced stat that estimates how many victories a player produces for his team. He showed just how effective a little guy can be no matter who he's up against when he put up 41 points and 17 assists — while turning the ball over only once — in a win over the Portland Trail Blazers last month. Here, Paul shares a few tips on how he's become one of the league's most successful guards despite his stature.
For Paul's defensive assignments, studying the opponent is key. "It's all about doing your homework," Paul says. "It's good to know things like if a guy has a high dribble, so you can get under him. I'm shorter than most of the guys I defend, so I have a better base. For me, it's actually better to defend bigger guys because I can use my size. The height difference can help me get a steal because I'm lower than he is." Paul's impressive pocket-picking has landed him on the All--Defensive First Team four times, and he leads all active players in steals per game (2.4). When Paul isn't snatching the ball away from the opposition, he's contesting shots and forcing bad passes. In March, Paul caused trouble for Russell Westbrook, harassing the Oklahoma City Thunder guard into a season-high 10 turnovers. But Paul admits he has his hands full when he's guarding 6'8" LeBron James (above), whom he considers the toughest player to defend. Why? "Probably because he knows all my tricks now!" Paul says.
Never one to shy away from zipping into the paint and taking on bigger defenders, Paul is one of the best finishers at the rim. "Drives and floaters are what I go for," Paul says about his go-to moves in traffic. "Pure will and determination — I think they trump everything," Paul says about getting to the hoop. His handle also allows him to rattle defenders who try to keep him out of the lane. "When I'm making moves I'm making counters to whatever my defender's hands and feet are doing. If they reach left, the ball goes over to my right," Paul says. "Ballhanding also helps with creating space for a shot. Having that dribble and handle is key to keeping the defender off-balance." Although Paul has developed other sweet spots on the floor over the course of his career (he's solid at the elbows, shooting 53% from there this season), he'll attack the basket when necessary. "I might be small in size and getting older, but I can still get there when I need to."
Paul plays alongside two-time league rebounding champ DeAndre Jordan, but he gets his share of boards, too. Since he entered the league in 2005, Paul leads all active point guards in total rebounds. During the 2008-09 season, when he played for the New Orleans Hornets, Paul collected the second-most rebounds (432) in history for a player 6 feet tall or shorter. His knack for cleaning the glass dates to his days playing youth basketball in North Carolina, when he learned that even if he couldn't use his height to help him get the ball, he could use his brains. "I remember when I was seven years old, my dad was the coach of my basketball team. He would make me pass the ball to teammates, and the only way I could get a shot and score was off their rebounds," Paul says. "I'd dribble down, pass, and take notice of where my teammates were shooting. Then I'd predict which side of the rim the ball could come off. It's instinctive. Now, when I see my teammates shoot the basketball, I'm doing the same thing: trying to determine where the ball will be so I can grab it."
Photos: John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated (Duncan), Gregory Shamus/Getty Images (James), Victor DeColongon/Getty Images (layup), Robert Hanashiro/USA Today Sports (rebounding)