Chris Paul’s career has been filled with season-ending injuries, but this one might be the most painful.
The Rockets were close. They were so excruciatingly close to getting past the team they were designed to beat.
Just a game away from knocking off the defending champs. The team that went 16-1 last postseason. The Golden State Warriors. But, they fell both a win and player short. They didn’t need a free agent or draft pick, they needed their star point guard sitting helplessly on the bench. They needed Chris Paul.
After his team’s fate had begun to sink in, Rockets guard Eric Gordon told the media, “If we had Chris, if he was out there, we’d have been playing on Thursday. It’s just tough.”
Thursday is a reference to the start of the NBA Finals and really, it’s easy to see Gordon’s point of view. The Warriors eventually proved they had enough talent and resiliency to get past the Rockets even if Paul were able to play in Games 6 and 7, but Paul would have made the road a whole lot tougher.
Flashback to the closing moments of Game 5 and the Rockets felt on the cusp of victory while the Warriors didn’t look like themselves. Golden State was disjointed, frustrated, and seemingly lost. They were following up their 12-point fourth quarter in Game 4 with a comparatively impressive 22-point performance in Game 5 but were about to fall down 3-2 in a series without home-court advantage. And then, Paul went down.
In the moment you knew it was bad. You could see the pain on Paul’s face, both from the injury itself and the sinking knowledge that his series — and probably season — was done. Houston held on and won Game 5 thanks to some timely nerves from Quinn Cook and a game-clinching rebound from Trevor Ariza, but they had lost Chris Paul.
This season was supposed to be Paul’s prize for a decade of fruitless work. Early in his career, Paul grew into a star in New Orleans but his time as a Hornet was testing. Paul’s rookie season came in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Hornets played their home games 11 hours away in Oklahoma City.
Over the next few seasons, Paul grew into an MVP-caliber player alongside Tyson Chandler and current-Warrior David West, but the trio saw little postseason success. The Hornets made the playoffs three times in Paul’s six seasons, reaching the second round just once. That one season the Hornets made it past Round 1, Paul had the best statistical season of his career and finished second in MVP voting.
Less than two years later Paul was somewhat controversially traded to the Los Angeles Clippers where he would begin a second six-year campaign filled with playoff failures. Alongside Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Paul headed Lob City and grew the Clippers into the presumptive heirs to the Western Conference throne their cross-town rivals were quickly abdicating, but that succession never materialized.
Early on in Paul’s tenure, the Clippers felt just a step away. Paul’s first three seasons in LA ended at the hands of the San Antonio, Memphis, and Oklahoma City, with each loss pushing them closer to their goals than the last. But over the next three seasons, LA’s luck took a turn.
In three consecutive years, the Clippers season ended in large part to a Paul or Griffin injury. In 2015, Paul had a lingering hamstring problem that limited his productivity as the Clippers collapsed against the Rockets in Round 2. The next year, Paul broke his hand and Griffin injured his quad as the Clippers fell to the Blazers. In 2017, Griffin’s toe injury ended his season and the Clippers lost in seven to the Jazz.
After a dozen seasons in the league, nine postseason losses, and not a single Conference Finals appearance, Paul’s playoff failures became a punchline. He became known as a guy who couldn’t get it done in the postseason, a guy who came up short. Everyone knew Paul was one of the best point guards of all time and an eventual Hall-of-Famer, but it was far more enjoyable to discredit him for postseason failures than it was to praise him for regular season success.
As the Rockets beat the Jazz two weeks ago — thanks to a 41-point performance from Paul — those jokes quieted out. As the Rockets went up 3-2 on the Warriors, the jokes were dead. Paul had proven he was capable of playing well in the postseason and his Game 5 heroics had pushed the Rockets to the edge of knocking off the Warriors. But in as little time as it takes to land awkwardly on your right leg, Paul’s season ended much like those that came before it.
Without Paul, the Rockets still had a 3-2 lead and a chance, but they weren’t nearly the same caliber of team. They weren’t a bad team by any stretch, they were the 2017 Rockets. But those Rockets couldn’t hold up against the Warriors’ second-half barrages.
After Paul went down Houston scored 13 fewer points per game and shot 2.7 percent worse from the field compared to Games 1-5. During the regular season Houston averaged 112.4 points per game and shot 46.0 percent from the field; in Games 6 and 7, they scored 89 points per game and shot 40.1 percent.
Without Paul, the Rockets made 7.2 percent fewer passes and totaled 1.8 fewer assists per game. The most ISO-heavy offense in the league isolated even more with Paul on the bench, and the stifling Warrior defense was able to hold them in check with relative ease.
But with all that said, they had a chance. Houston was up by 11 at halftime of Game 7 and the Warriors were reeling. Steve Kerr was furious, Klay Thompson picked up three fouls in the first three minutes of the game, the Warriors kept turning it over, and the Rockets already had 14 offensive rebounds. Even with the expected Warrior third-quarter run imminent, the Rockets had a chance. But that chance was squandered it by having one of the worst shooting halves in NBA history.
Houston ended the game 7-44 (15.9 percent) from three, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. At one point they missed 27 consecutive three-pointers, a feat so disastrously impressive that FiveThirtyEight calculated the odds of it occurring at 1-in-72,000.
The collapse was swift and there was very little Houston could do to stop it. They were getting open shots, but Harden, Ariza, and Gordon missed the lot of them. Houston would miss a three on one end and Golden State would sprint down to make one on the other. The missed Rocket shots only fueled the runaway train that is the third-quarter Warrior offense.
At the moment it felt like the Warrior run was unstoppable, but it is plausible Paul could’ve slowed it down. Paul can control an offense better than just about anyone in the league and an open mid-range jumper would have been welcome in the midst of the 27 straight misses from downtown. It might not have changed the outcome of the game, but Paul would have helped slow the Rockets bleeding.
In all likelihood, this won’t be Houston’s last chance. They had the best record in the league and were just a couple of shots away from making the Finals. But with Paul’s impending free agency, Daryl Morey has to decide whether to offer Paul a max deal that would end when he’s 38 years old.
The Rockets were already the oldest team in the league, and bringing back their core would only increase that lead over everyone else. It is possible that we’ll be right back here next season, but it’s also possible that unless LeBron James chooses to sign with the Rockets this summer, we’ll look back on this year as Houston’s best shot. The Rockets did their best, Chris Paul did his. But in the end, another injury stood between Paul and his ultimate goals.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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