There is no embellishment to Chris Paul's first half performance against the Warriors – he started the game cold as an ex's heart, hitting zero of his first seven shots. But then, as the Rockets headed into the locker room at the half, Paul must have gotten a hold of some of that Michael's Secret Stuff. After the intermission, a new man stepped on the court, ready to play with the Warriors.
Paul dropped three straight 3-pointers straight out the gates, including this absolutely ridiculous off-balance shot he iced with an awkwardly looking shimmy on Steph Curry.
Unlike his bearded backcourt partner, who carried over his atrocious spell of 3-point shooting from Game 4 (0-20 and counting), Paul seemed fully aware of the magnitude of the game at hand.
If it weren't for him, Eric Gordon and Draymond Green's greasy hands, the Rockets would now be in a deep hole heading into the Oracle Arena on Sunday. It's understandable therefore why the crowd in Toyota Center froze in place when they saw their point guard struggling to get back on defense in the defining moments of Game 5.
The nightmares of the handful of Rockets' fans who managed to catch some sleep turned into harsh reality early Friday morning. They will now have to try and close out their first conference finals in three years without one of their primary engines and arguably the best player of the series.
The hamstring injury is not unknown to Paul. He was already haunted by it just three years ago in a quite similar context. It was early in the Game 7 of the first round in 2015 against the reigning champions San Antonio Spurs when Paul suffered the exact same injury – this is how he responded back then.
Reminder of what @CP3 did after his 2015 hamstring injury: Played through it in Game 7, had 27/6 (on 69% FG!) and the epic winning shot over Duncan. Sat first two games of next round, then averaged 21/10 per game on 49% FG, 40% on 3s, and only 2 turnovers.https://t.co/wzSmJtZTvV
— Ben DuBose (@BenDuBose) May 25, 2018
Today, Paul is three years removed from that epic performance, and while the situation might seem familiar, it's also different in a number of ways. He is, obviously, older, and though he might not be outside of his basketball prime yet, his body will certainly take longer to regenerate and enable him to provide his best on the court. An extra couple of days of rest and rehabilitation will surely do wonders for him in that regard.
Furthermore, that Spurs team the Clippers were facing in 2015 absolutely was one of the greatest teams ever assembled, but again, it was led by players who were slowly entering the twilights of their careers. The current Warriors roster, on the other hand, features an unfair number of four future all-time greats at the height of their primes. While they are by no means flawless, as evidenced by Rockets' success in exploiting the rare deficiencies of Steve Kerr's system, they are the odds favorites to advance to their fourth straight NBA finals despite being down 3-2.
The fact that Game 6 takes place in Warriors' fortress in Oakland is one of the main reasons why the decision to keep Paul sidelined remains a wise one. Since Kerr's inauguration, the Dubs have had incredible success playing in their home arena. The 36-6 home record in just four postseasons gives vibes of a seasoned player choosing to play on rookie in NBA 2K.
In that process, they have played against plenty of special teams, but none other than LeBron James and the Cavaliers in that infamous 3-1 comeback managed to snatch more than one win at the Oracle in a single series. This goes to show that, statistically speaking, the Rockets' chances of concluding the series tonight would be at a bare minimum, even with Paul healthy.
Of course, it's not only the Rockets' fans who will be frustrated by Paul's absence; every single NBA fan would want to see the best each team has to offer tonight. However, if you're the Rockets' front office, you'd definitely want to play your cards safe in this situation. Imagine the uproar that would be caused by having Paul active and further aggravating his injury, with the Warriors getting the win at the same time.
Having Paul watching the action tonight from the sidelines will result in his competitive spirit reaching boiling point, and should also provide more space for James Harden to get his mojo back. If the Warriors force Game 7, which currently seems like a more than a realistic turn of events, expect Paul coming out in Houston biting, eager to shut up the critics condemning his postseason record.
The Rockets' decision to keep him quarantined for Game 6 is definitely not the most popular one but will give Paul the best possible chance to secure his place in the pantheon of basketball with another epic outing in the potential Game 7.