To his great credit, Chris Paul is pretty easily the most annoying player in the NBA to play against. He is prepared to flop or half-flop at any given moment out on the court, steal a trip to the free throw line by baiting in a reach, or approach the absolute limit of how much he can push and jockey and harass an opponent without earning a foul of his own. Each and every Paul possession, on both sides of the court, is a masterclass in finding the line between committing an infraction and being an irritant. Without Devin Booker in the fold in Phoenix’s first-round series against New Orleans, Paul has had to step in as the team’s sole ballhandler and creator. It’s a job he’s approached all the exasperating zest you’d expect. All of which is to say that it is very impressive indeed that Jose Alvarado has now spent five games out-pesting Chris Paul.
Alvarado is an undrafted rookie out of Georgia Tech who’s been splitting time with DeVonte’ Graham as the Pelicans’ second guard, a job he earned by outplaying veteran Garrett Temple during the regular season. As McCollum, Brandon Ingram, and Jonas Valanciunas take the vast majority of New Orleans’ shots, Alvarado’s role is fairly simple: take what’s there on offense, but mostly just fuck with Paul as much as possible on defense. First-year head coach Willie Green appears to be taking a risk by having two rookies, Herb Jones and Alvarado, defend Paul, but like Green, these two first-year players are up to the task. Where Jones is lanky and athletic and negates a lot of Paul’s abilities with his size, Alvarado is a straight-up match for Paul’s physicality and mastery of the dark arts. He picks Paul up in the backcourt and clearly infuriates him by remaining in his face the entire time he has the ball. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed watching any other player play defense as much as I have Alvarado this postseason.
They call him Grand Theft Alvarado. Here is why.
Consider also the eight-second violation he forced against Paul earlier in that game.
Alvarado was great in the Pelicans wins in Game 2 and Game 4, scoring seven straight in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and putting on a show in Game 4. The Pelicans lost last night despite his best efforts, as the Suns locked in and suffocated the Pelicans offense. Alvarado still showed up, though, and forced another eight-second violation in the fourth quarter.
There’s something thrilling about watching a player, let alone one as unheralded as Alvarado, not only match but at times even exceed Chris Paul’s zeal for overphysical annoyance. This sort of thing does not tend to work. Paul is so smart and so good that most players who try to rise to match his energy get frustrated and baited into tons of cheap fouls. Paul is the best at this stuff for a reason, remember. But Alvarado has the guts and talent to stay with him a lot of the time, and unburdened from the responsibilities of running an offense, Alvarado is liberated to use all his energy getting under Paul’s skin. It doesn’t really matter that he’s not doing much on offense besides spot up and occasionally create off the bounce late in the shot clock; it’s not what his team needs him to do. Alvarado’s utility is as an energy guy, and he’s more than delivered on that front in these playoffs. I consider it a perverse sign of success that Alvarado got Paul so mad he had to kick him in the dick and balls.
Ultimately, the Suns should probably still win this series, and Alvarado’s playoff debut will end after the first round. It’s been a great one, though, and perhaps the ultimate beneficiaries of his efforts will not be the Pelicans, but the Mavericks or whoever else the Suns have to play later in the postseason. Like Jones, Green, and New Orleans’ other rookie Trey Murphy III, Alvarado has earned a place in the league, and as an important part of a cool young core.