This first appeared in the May 28 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
HOUSTON — A year ago, the idea of a team challenging the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs was foolhardy, at best. There were some who advocated for tanking, specifically because this team couldn’t be beaten. Others simply resigned themselves to the belief that it was impossible.
The Warriors featured four future Hall of Famers in their primes, one of the best coaches in the league and quality veterans Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and David West in reserve. It was, or so it seemed, the NBA’s Mount Everest.
But one team, the Houston Rockets, didn’t shy away from attempting the climb.
“They are not unbeatable,” Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey told ESPN last June, after Golden State won its second title in three years. “There have been bigger upsets in sports history. We are going to keep improving our roster. … We are used to long odds.
“If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve.”
Morey wasn’t kidding. Within a month, Houston added Chris Paul in a blockbuster trade and signed P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute via free agency. Gerald Green was added off the street in December, and the Rockets became a juggernaut. They won a league-best 65 regular season games before cruising to the Western Conference finals with just two losses combined in the first and second rounds, setting the stage for what at least had the potential to be the first real challenge the Warriors had faced since Kevin Durant’s arrival in Oakland.
And they have challenged Golden State in these Western Conference finals. In fact, they’ve been the better team for much of the series. So, no matter who wins Game 7 here at Toyota Center, Houston’s gamble has paid off and Morey’s assessment was correct.
That isn’t to say Houston should be satisfied with a moral victory in this series. Far from it. The Rockets have imposed their will on the Warriors from the opening tip of Game 1, dictating the terms of engagement and bending the Warriors to play at their pace, and with their preferred style, far more often than Golden State has done likewise.
The reason Golden State has looked so uncomfortable in this series is because Houston has made things uncomfortable. The Warriors never have been a team that handled being thrown around very well, even before Durant’s arrival in the Bay Area. That was the formula teams used against Golden State in the past, and to good effect. The Warriors usually survived — the 2016 NBA Finals being the notable exception — but the formula was there.
It just seemed impossible to pull off. Who could put together enough skill and toughness to throw off the Warriors enough to beat them?
It turns out Houston was that team.
Tucker has been a human bowling ball throughout the series, barreling into players at both ends and making his presence felt. Trevor Ariza has given Durant all kinds of trouble on the wings. Clint Capela has been a monster in the paint, grabbing double digit rebounds in four of the six games — registering 13, 14 and 15 in Games 4, 5 and 6, respectively.
Those individual efforts, coupled with James Harden and Paul orchestrating Mike D’Antoni’s offense and Eric Gordon bombing away from three-point range, have allowed Houston has put a real scare into Golden State — far more of one than just about anyone outside of Houston’s city limits, and likely many within them, thought possible.
Which is what makes Paul’s hamstring injury so devastating. Here’s a player who has spent his career banging his head against the proverbial wall trying to escape the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. There is no question some of the wounds he’s suffered along the way have been self-inflicted, from his meltdown in Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2014 to the collapse from up three games to one against these Rockets in 2015. But Paul also has suffered one injury after another in his career, injuries that have helped see those playoff runs fall short.
Now, this postseason, he finds himself sidelined almost certainly for Game 7 because of the hamstring strain he suffered in the final minute of Houston’s Game 5 victory.
Everyone around the team is saying all the right things, and Paul is undoubtedly going to do his best to play in this game. But remember, with 50 seconds remaining in a one-point game, one of the most competitive players to ever put on an NBA jersey could only stand at the far end of the court and watch as Golden State had a five-on-four advantage. That wasn’t because Paul was looking for a foul, or upset about something that happened. His body simply had betrayed him.
To expect Paul to recover from that injury and be any kind of effective presence in Game 7 is to hope for a miracle. Expecting a Willis Reed moment from a guard is unrealistic.
Still, Houston is capable of winning Game 7 without Paul. Golden State’s hubris has shone through this season, and the Warriors have never found a way to snap themselves out of the funk they’ve been in since the season’s opening night.
“If you have any idea, please let me know,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said, only half-jokingly, after the Warriors trailed by 17 after the first quarter before rallying to blow Houston out. “I have no clue why our team is like this. But this is … this is kind of what we do.”
The Warriors have never doubted themselves this season — to a fault. Even after a second straight fourth-quarter collapse at Houston in Game 5, Golden State acted like all it had to do was win a home game — not also find a way to win in Houston for a second time this season.
Yes, the Rockets won’t have Paul, but they still have Harden and Gordon, and a team that’s capable of getting physical with the Warriors and going 20 for 50 from three-point range.
All of those things likely have to happen for Houston to win. That the Rockets are in this position at all, having pushed Golden State to this point, is proof that Morey’s attempt to increase his risk profile was worth the gamble.
Fortune favors the bold. In a moment where many were thinking there wasn’t a potential path forward, Morey and the Rockets found one. It’s put them on the brink of pulling off something many thought unthinkable.
They have 48 minutes to finish proving themselves right.
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