HOUSTON — Late after the Rockets‘ thrilling 98-94 win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of these Western Conference finals Thursday night, Charles Paul sat in the stands at the Toyota Center waiting for an update on son Chris Paul and his injured right hamstring.
Like the rest of the basketball world, the elder Paul had seen this cruel scenario play out too many times before. For the second straight game, his son had been brilliant in the second half of a taut game against the defending champs and helped Houston pull off a gutty victory — the latest giving the Rockets a 3-2 series lead. But as has happened throughout his career, an ill-timed injury could cost him and his team dearly.
“To get here and have this,” Charles Paul said, shaking his head. “It comes with the job. You never know what’s going to happen.
“Chris doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He’s like, ‘OK, this is what happened. We got to make the best of it.’ He’ll talk to the players on the team and say, ‘Hey, I’m still going to be there, even if I don’t play.'”
The Rockets said Paul would be re-evaluated after he gets an MRI on Friday before his status for Game 6 is determined. A team source told ESPN that his hamstring was still “really sore” late Thursday night and that he had felt “a twinge” upon landing after a jumper in the final minute of Game 5.
“We’ll see,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Obviously, you saw him limp off. And he’s a tough guy.”
Asked about Paul’s mood after the game, D’Antoni said simply, “Well, his spirits aren’t great. For sure he’s worried and all that.”
If Paul can’t go on Saturday in Game 6 or Monday in Game 7, it would be yet another cruel twist of fate for the future Basketball Hall of Famer, who had never advanced this far in the playoffs until this season. So many of those playoff runs had ended with injuries to himself or his teammates; it almost seemed like he had been affected by the so-called Clipper Curse that always seemed to afflict his former team.
Of course, Paul also has played through injuries just like this one.
In 2015, Paul found a way to play with a similar hamstring injury to lead the LA Clippers to victory over the San Antonio Spurs in an epic seven-game first-round series. This came after the only regular season of Paul’s career that saw him play all 82 games. Paul pushed himself so far in that Game 7 that he missed the first two games of the next series –ironically against the Rockets.
The next year, in 2016, Paul broke a bone in his hand during a series against the Portland Trail Blazers. In that same third quarter of Game 4 in Portland, Clippers teammate Blake Griffin aggravated a quadriceps injury. The Clippers would lose in six to Portland after holding a 2-0 series lead.
Last season, Griffin suffered a freak foot injury during a first-round series against the Jazz, leaving Paul to end his tenure in L.A. with a Game 7 home loss to Utah.
These were some of the reasons Paul decided to start over and try something new this year in Houston.
“It was hard. His kids loved it. He loved it. He thought he was going to end his career in L.A.,” Charles Paul said of his son’s decision to leave for Houston. “But after he made the decision, he was excited about it. He just wanted to win.”
You could see that hunger in the second half of Game 4, as Paul shook off a foot injury that had affected his mobility to lead the Rockets back from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to a road victory.
Paul turned it on in the second half again on Thursday night. After scoring just two points on 0-for-7 shooting in the first half, Paul caught fire from behind the 3-point arc, hitting 4 of 6 from deep and 6 of 12 shots overall. He finished with 18 points, including an audacious contested 3-pointer that sent him shimmying in Stephen Curry‘s face as he ran back down the court.
After going 0-for-7 in the first half, Chris Paul turns it up in the second, scoring 18 points and draining four 3-pointers.
“I used to coach him. So I know when it happens. When they make him mad, he turns it on,” Paul’s father said. “That’s how he always plays. I got him on tape.”
What did he have to be mad about?
“I don’t have a clue. I’m just happy he got mad because we needed him to do that,” Rockets small forward Trevor Ariza said. “He finds himself getting into a mode when he sees red, and the basket opens up, everything opens up and he starts attacking.”
Paul’s grit in the second half Thursday helped the Rockets overcome another off night of shooting from MVP frontrunner James Harden, who has now missed his past 20 3-point shots.
Some of Harden’s issues are likely due to fatigue, as the Rockets have played just seven men in each of the past two games. But credit also is due for Warriors guard Klay Thompson, who has been the primary defender on Harden over the past two games with Andre Iguodala sidelined with a bruised lower leg.
Ironically, for these two offensively superior teams, defense has been the story of this series. Both teams have constructed rosters with players capable of defending multiple positions and switching almost every play to negate each other’s deadly pick-and-roll game.
That has turned the normally pass-happy Warriors into an isolation-heavy team. According to Second Spectrum, the Warriors are averaging 58 fewer passes a game in this series and running more than twice as many isolation plays. In the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs, the Warriors averaged 334.3 passes, 11.1 isolations and 51.4 assist opportunities. In the conference finals, they’re averaging just 276.2 passes, 27.2 isolations and 37.4 assist opportunities.
That translates to a whole lot of isolation plays for Kevin Durant, whom Golden State coach Steve Kerr could be seen on the TNT broadcast cajoling to trust his teammates early in possessions, much like Phil Jackson once did with Michael Jordan.
“I just thought he got into a little bit of a rush, like we all did,” Kerr said. “I was just telling him, ‘Hey, let’s move the ball on to the first open guy and keep playing, and we’re going to get good stuff.”
Kerr was noticeably upbeat, despite the Warriors being pushed to the brink of elimination.
“I like what you said, this is the worst situation we’ve been in since Kevin’s been here and we’re two wins from making the NBA Finals,” Kerr said. “So that’s a pretty good worst situation to be in. We’re right there. We found some things tonight that worked for us. I’m extremely confident that we’re going to take care of business.”