Chris Paul has fought for 13 years to get to this point — to have the opportunity to play for a berth in the NBA Finals, to find himself on the verge of the last barrier he hasn’t yet crossed in his illustrious professional career. He’s here now; he’s brought the Houston Rockets to the doorstep. It seems downright cruel that he might wind up having to limp across the threshold.
Eric Gordon scored 24 points off the bench, including a huge 3-pointer with 1:21 to go and two clutch free throws with two seconds remaining, as the Rockets survived another wild finish to beat the Golden State Warriors, 98-94, in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday. The Rockets now lead the best-of-seven series three games to two, and can advance to the NBA Finals by beating the Warriors at Oracle Arena in Game 6 on Saturday.
But despite Gordon’s performance, all eyes were on Paul during the second half … and all eyes will be on him as the scene shifts back to the Bay Area.
For the second straight game, Paul turned in a brilliant finish. After missing his first seven shots on Thursday, he got cranked up in a major way, scoring 18 of his 20 points after intermission to go with seven rebounds, six assists and three steals in 38 turnover-free minutes, helping lead the Rockets to within one game of the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 1995. But Paul’s heroics may have come at a dear, dear cost.
Chris Paul appears to aggravate hamstring injury late in 4th quarter pic.twitter.com/ZymxtH0J6Q
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) May 25, 2018
Paul spent the final 22.4 seconds of the game on the sideline after injuring his right hamstring on a spinning drive into the lane against Warriors guard Quinn Cook, leaving him down in the paint and clearly in pain as Golden State ran back on offense. The Warriors couldn’t capitalize, as Cook — a former G Leaguer who earned minutes and Steve Kerr’s trust as a stand-in for Stephen Curry during his late-season knee injury — missed an open 3-pointer that would’ve given Golden State a two-point lead. (Cook, a 44.2 percent 3-point shooter during the regular season, took three shots on Thursday, all open 3-pointers — one at the end of the first quarter, one at the end of the third, and the last with 42 seconds to go. They all missed. It’s a cold game sometimes.)
With Paul on the bench for the duration, the Warriors had two more chances to steal a game in which they once again struggled mightily to consistently generate good looks against a locked-in Rockets defense. They squandered both.
Curry rattled a short runner in-and-out with 13 seconds to go over the defense of James Harden and the flying help of 6-foot-5 center P.J. Tucker. (Who, by the way, was a monster once again, scoring eight points, grabbing nine rebounds and mucking up Golden State’s offense with his timely help defense; the Rockets outscored the Warriors by 14 points in his 42 minutes of floor time.) In the scramble for the loose ball, Draymond Green had a chance to pull down the offensive rebound, and perhaps put in a layup that could’ve put Golden State on top. Instead, he tapped the ball back out toward the perimeter, where Trevor Ariza picked it up, forcing the Warriors to foul and send him to the line.
After Ariza missed his second free throw, Golden State got another crack at it, trailing by two with 6.7 seconds to go. But because they’d made a pass after the rebound of the missed free throw, they weren’t able to automatically advance it to half-court, meaning they had to go the length of the floor to get a look at an equalizer or a winner.
And when Curry threw the ball to Green on the move heading up the floor …
ROCKETS RECOVER pic.twitter.com/g8k5Y8BTpx
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) May 25, 2018
… Green fumbled it, allowing Gordon to steal the loose ball as the clock ticked down.
Green finished with 12 points, 15 rebounds and four assists in 42 minutes of captaining the Warriors’ defense. He scored their final five points, answering Gordon’s big 3 with one of his own on the ensuing possession to keep Golden State within striking distance late. But the final-seconds bobble capped a rough close to the game for Green, who committed six of the Warriors’ 18 turnovers while trying to force passes to would-be cutters swallowed up by Houston’s switch-everything defensive scheme, got a hoped-for dunk inhaled by Clint Capela (who was awesome in the first half, and finished with 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting, 14 rebounds and two swats) and couldn’t seem to get right when it mattered most:
Draymond Green’s last few possessions: pass to Quinn Cook instead of driving for a layup; bat an offensive rebound to Houston instead of trying to grab it; pass instead of calling timeout for midcourt possession; unforced turnover.
— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) May 25, 2018
After the Warriors fouled Gordon — who went just 2-for-8 from the field in the first half, but who shot with confidence in the third and fourth quarters and attacked repeatedly to get himself to the foul line — he made his free throws, finishing 9-for-10 from the stripe, and effectively finishing off the game. Now, the Rockets head back to the Bay, where they just handed Golden State a bracing defeat in Game 4, with a chance to finish this series in six.
Whether they’ll have the Hall of Fame point guard that general manager Daryl Morey moved heaven and earth to import this summer for just such an occasion, though, remains to be seen.
Mike D'Antoni on Chris Paul's Game 6 status: "We'll see. He'll be evaluated. If he's there, great. If he isn't, we've got enough guys." Doesn't sound optimistic.
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 25, 2018
That Paul — the star of the Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz that punched his first-ever ticket to the conference finals, an elite player whose postseason résumé bears black marks related to injuries that limited or sidelined Paul and/or Blake Griffin in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and to ill-timed meltdowns, and one who has played through the dual pressures of history and Golden State to save the Rockets in their two biggest games of the season thus far — might wind up observing the balance of the series from the sidelines is brutal, severe and deeply unsatisfying. The joy of unexpected [expletive] happening in the playoffs cuts both ways, though, and now Houston, one win away from validation and a shot at the brass ring, must figure it out.
The Rockets desperately needed the heroics of Gordon and Paul to pick up the slack of superstar shooting guard James Harden, whose cold shooting from the second half of Game 4 carried over in a major way on Thursday. Harden scored 19 points, but did so on dismal 5-for-21 shooting, including an 0-for-11 mark from 3-point range, tying John Starks (Game 7, 1994 NBA Finals) for the most 3-point attempts without a make in postseason history.
As was the case in Starks’ game, though, Houston won, thanks in part to Harden making a dynamite feed to Gordon for what wound up being the game-winning 3-pointer — the second straight game in which Gordon delivered the dagger from distance — on a drive-and-kick with just under 90 seconds to go:
— NBA (@NBA) May 25, 2018
The dime was a rare bright spot in a rough game for Harden, who piled up six turnovers against four assists in 39 minutes, and who frequently seemed content to look for his step-back jumper even when matched up against Warriors defenders against whom he seemed to have the sort of athleticism and quickness advantage that would allow him to get to the rim. Harden did go a perfect 9-for-9 from the line, but if the Rockets hope to close Golden State out at Oracle — and especially if Paul’s either unable to go or operating on one leg — Houston will need more from the NBA’s likely 2017-18 Most Valuable Player.
Kevin Durant led the way for Golden State, scoring 29 points with four rebounds in 40 minutes of floor time. But once again, as has been the case throughout this series, Durant bought his buckets with shot volume, going 8-for-22 from the floor and not logging a single assist as he continued to attack Houston’s defenders in isolation.
In a vacuum, this makes sense. As KD proved by pouring in 75 points in Games 1 and 2 in Houston, he can typically get his shot whenever he wants against most any Rockets defender. In context, though, the Rockets have done a much better job as the series has worn on at pushing him off his preferred spots, forcing him to begin actions higher up on the floor — Ariza nearly forced him into a backcourt violation with his ball pressure at one point — and getting quality contests on Durant’s shots.
On top of that, Durant initiating so much one-on-one offense, either with his back to the basket in the post or from the top of the floor with Houston able to load up on his dribble by sinking off a less threatening offensive player — the largely unwilling-to-shoot Green and Shaun Livingston, the unable-to-do-much-with-the-ball Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell — saps the dynamism and venom from Golden State’s typically free-flowing and voracious attack. (In those situations, once again, the absence of the injured Andre Iguodala’s supplementary playmaking loomed large.)
The Warriors are not moving the ball as much in the Conference Finals.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 25, 2018
As important as Durant’s hero-ball buckets were in keeping Golden State in the fight after opening the game in a 19-8 hole, and as the fouls he drew were for keeping the Warriors afloat as Paul dropped bomb after 3-point bomb, the Warriors’ best stretches seemed to come in the second and third quarters when they ran things through the guards who have been the linchpins of their attack since back when Mark Jackson was on the bench.
Curry finished with 22 points on 8-for-17 shooting, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals and three turnovers in 41 minutes. Eleven of those came in the second quarter, which he began with the ball in his hands with Durant catching a breather. After picking up a knee injury in Game 4 and suffering through a rough first half, Klay Thompson revved up after halftime, getting going by dusting off some of his old 1-2 pick-and-roll partnership with Curry to slip free for some open 3s and scoring 16 of his 23 points in the third and fourth.
Curry and Thompson combined for 13 of the Warriors’ 22 points in the fourth quarter — a marked improvement over Tuesday’s woeful 12-point last stanza, but still not enough to get the job done. Durant, meanwhile, went 0-for-4 in the final 12 minutes, including a pair of misses on short jumpers in the lane after post-ups on the right block (one on Gordon, one on Paul) that Houston stifled thanks to late swipes from opportunistic help defenders (Tucker the first time, Harden the second).
The offensive process didn’t look good, and the results it produced (on the whole) weren’t good, but after the game, Kerr bristled at the notion that dialing up post-up after post-up for KD might’ve been anything but:
Steve Kerr gets testy with reporter who asked about if the Warriors went to Kevin Durant in the post too much. pic.twitter.com/qaxmO6SNZR
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) May 25, 2018
Despite having lost two games by a total of seven points after consecutive crunch-time collapses, despite having just gotten a total of four points from his bench, despite having managed to lose a game in which the Rockets missed 30 of their 43 3-pointers, and despite facing an elimination game for the first time since the Cavs completed their world-shocking comeback in 2016, Kerr insisted after the game that he exits Game 5 more encouraged than discouraged by where the Warriors stand.
“I feel great about where we are right now,” he told reporters. “That may sound crazy, but I feel it. I know exactly what I’m seeing out there, and we defended them beautifully tonight. We got everything we needed. Just too many turnovers, too many reaches, and if we settle down a little bit, we’re going to be in really good shape.”
Maybe it makes sense. We’ve seen what the Warriors can do to the Rockets when things flip their way; with two more days to get Iguodala back into the lineup and D’Antoni’s rotation down to just seven players before Paul’s injury, maybe things are poised to turn that direction again. But Golden State’s going to have to do the work.
Houston has proven physical, nasty and flat-out good enough to render Golden State’s formerly beautiful offense unrecognizable, and resilient enough to take heavy punches and keep launching their own. The Rockets were built to do the unthinkable: beat the league’s most overpowered superteam four times in seven games. In seizing the opportunity to get within arm’s reach of making their impossible dream into reality, though, they may have lost Paul — which is to say, they may have lost everything.
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