Nerves of steal characterise Paul's success

Chris Paul (left) dispossesses Russell Westbrook. The Clippers' star has 1,898 steals - more than any active NBA player.
Chris Paul (left) dispossesses Russell Westbrook. The Clippers' star has 1,898 steals - more than any active NBA player.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES • Chris Paul examined his crooked knuckles and the surgical scars that form tiny road maps on his hands. He has torn various ligaments in his thumbs and has broken bones in his fingers. He has worn casts and splints. His hands, though, are the indispensable tools of his trade.

"I've got the worst fingers," the 31-year-old said.

The starting point guard for the Los Angeles Clippers has long established himself as one of the National Basketball Association's (NBA) premier defenders. He has collected more steals than any other active player in the league: 1,898 and counting. A nine-time All-Star, he strips dribbles like paint thinner.

His coach, Doc Rivers, has concluded that Paul has the best hands he has ever seen.

"Gifted," Rivers said. "His hands are so damn quick."

Paul has paid the price for possessing such gifts, most recently in January. In a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he jammed his left thumb fighting through a screen, tearing his ulnar collateral ligament - not to be confused with his radial collateral ligament, the one he tore on his right thumb training for the Olympics in 2012.


Gifted. His hands are so damn quick.

DOC RIVERS, LA Clippers coach, explaining why Paul's sense of coordination is vital to the way he collects his steals without piling up fouls.

Few people have first-hand knowledge of the difference between RCL and UCL tears. Paul is one of them. (They both hurt, he said.)

He missed 14 games before returning late last month. On Saturday, he scored 14 points and made a steal as the Clippers beat the Utah Jazz 108-95 to clinch a play-off berth for the sixth season in a row.

"I see plays all the time where I know I can reach for the ball and I know I can steal it," he said. "But it's like risk versus reward: Do I go for it?"

Such is life for the six time all-defensive first-team player. He tore ligaments in his right middle finger in March 2010. He fractured his left index finger in October 2015. He broke his right hand last April, and he continues to play with 16 pins and a metal plate embedded in his palm. He shoots with that hand.

The challenge for Paul is that he relies on his hands. He is not, by his own admission, one of the league's most awesome physical specimens. He is 1.83m and weighs 79kg. He is not particularly fast and does not jump especially high. But he has exceptional reflexes and a knack for anticipating plays.

"He could have been a boxer," Rivers said. "I don't know if he could've taken a punch, but he could have landed some for sure."

Growing up in North Carolina, Paul worked to develop hand speed and coordination. He was almost never without a ball, he said. He also watched the game constantly, studying how other players dribbled and passed, and all the angles they used to create space. He determined that there were a finite number of possibilities.

"Not being the most athletic player," he said, "I've always had to understand where you're going with the ball."

He recorded his first NBA steal before he scored his first NBA points, intercepting an errant pass before racing away for a lay-up. His professional career was less than four minutes old. In 2008, he set an NBA record by going 108 straight games with at least one steal.

"I think that one's going to be hard to break," said Paul, who is averaging 17.5 points, 9.1 assists and 2.0 steals this season, while going about 14 minutes between fouls.

"I'm amazed how cleanly he gets steals in traffic," Rivers said.

But most of the time, he knows what to expect: A safe pair of hands.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'Nerves of steal characterise Paul's success'. Print Edition | Subscribe