If you have followed Chris Paul’s NBA career, you had seen this look before — a blank face hiding a boiling anger inside, frustration on the cusp of eruption.
Paul’s body, as it has before in the postseason, failed him Thursday night. Before the Rockets announced his fate, Paul knew. It was written all over his face.
Houston’s All-Star point guard will miss Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against Golden State on Saturday, his team one win away from the NBA Finals, because of a strained right hamstring. Paul underwent an MRI exam Friday morning before the team ruled him out. Instead of staying behind in Houston for treatment, he joined his teammates on the trip to Oakland.
The injury came at the end of a virtuoso second half, with Paul nailing impossible three-point shots in the face of Golden State’s defense, scoring 18 points after halftime when both defenses made scoring extremely difficult.
“Obviously, it's not something that we wanted,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Paul’s injury. “I hate it for him, above all. He's practically won us the last two games.”
D’Antoni said he didn’t know Paul’s status for a potential Game 7, which would be played Monday night in Houston.
The injury occurred in the final minute of the Rockets’ 98-94 win. After Paul attempted a floater in the paint, he fell to the court and was there for an extended period before getting up and limping toward the corner, his hand on the back of his right leg, while play continued on the other end of the court.
The Warriors missed a three-pointer that would have given them the lead, and Paul left the game at the next whistle.
Paul, then with the Clippers, injured his left hamstring in Game 7 of the first round of the 2015 playoffs, fighting through the injury to eliminate the San Antonio Spurs with a last-second shot. Paul then missed the first two games of the second round.
In 15 games this postseason, Paul is averaging 21.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.0 steals. Playing in the conference finals for the first time in his career — a much-discussed narrative — Paul has averaged a tick less than 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
“It's tough. It's tough. We don't want to just be down on it. We don't want to be coming and pouting around,” Rockets All-Star guard James Harden said. “We want to keep our same swagger, our same positive energy. We want to feed that to him as well. You know, ‘Be happy, be ready. Get this thing right. Get this thing going, and be back in no time.’”
The Rockets will turn to one of the players the Clippers sent to New Orleans when they traded for Paul in 2011.
Eric Gordon, D’Antoni said, will move into the starting lineup. Luc Mbah a Moute, Ryan Anderson and Joe Johnson — seldom used in the playoffs — could also find their way into Houston’s plans.
Does anything change in the Rockets’ game plan?
“Nothing. We'll play the exact same way,” D’Antoni said, adding of Paul’s absence, “It's just one other option that is pretty good, obviously, and we don't have that. But other guys are going to have to play well. We have to play better. We have to shoot the ball better.
“It's different things, but it will not change anything we do or how we do it.”
Gordon has hit huge three-point shots late in each of the last two Houston wins.
“I'm going to look for ways to get even better than yesterday,” Gordon said Friday morning. “I would definitely like to hit a couple more threes that I had great looks on yesterday. But we can get better as a team. Like I said, Chris, that's a very tough loss. But I still think we always find ways to win during the season.”
Like Warriors coach Steve Kerr did after his team went down 3-2 in the series Thursday, the news about Paul meant it was the Rockets’ turn to put on a brave face in light of a tough situation.
“It's not something we want, for Chris especially, or us. But it's something we can deal with very easily,” D’Antoni said. “We'll use the motivation that, ‘OK, this is not going to be easy.’ It never was. Until they are dead, we're not thinking, ‘Oh, we're in pretty good shape.’ No, we're not in good shape. We're there, and now we've got to get over the finish line.”
In their way will be an “angry” Warriors team, Kerr said. After losing two close games in a row, the defending NBA champions have done their best to convince people they’re in a good position.
“I mean, this is kind of what the playoffs are about. You go through a lot of ups and downs, but ultimately somebody's got to win four times, so you just keep going,” Kerr said Friday morning. “You keep playing. We have a chance to tie the series at home. That's a pretty good position to be in. We've got to win two basketball games and we've done that an awful lot, so we're very confident.”
Kerr said he wasn’t sure if forward Andre Iguodala, a key part of Golden State’s best lineup, would be able to play Saturday after missing the last two games with a bruised knee.
“He's a great player. He's one of our keys, and we've missed him the last two games,” Kerr said. “But we can't count on it. Injuries happen, and you've just got to play with whoever's out there. So we're hoping he's back, and we'll see what happens.”
The Warriors without Iguodala seem like a better team than the Rockets without Paul — Houston was only a couple of points better than the Warriors with him while Iguodala was out. It would seem that Harden, the likely MVP of the league, would need to be spectacular to get the Rockets the win they need.
Harden, though, has struggled offensively in the series, missing his last 20 three-point shots. While his defense has been important, Harden is shooting only 36.8% from the field and 18.2% from three-point range in his last four games.
With Paul down, with the Warriors hungry and agitated, and with a trip the Finals hanging in the balance, Harden said he doesn’t feel extra pressure to deliver for his team.
“Pressure for what?” he asked Friday. “It's Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. There is pressure on everybody.”
Harden said it’s an “opportunity that a lot of people never had and probably won't ever have, so it's our job to go out there and have fun with it and do the same thing we've been doing. And we want to take advantage of it.”