OAKLAND, Calif. — For the last year, James Harden, Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets organization have sat around lamenting “what if.”
What if Paul didn’t pull his hamstring in last year’s conference finals against the Golden State Warriors? What if the Rockets had continued to control the series? What if they had played the outmanned Cleveland Cavaliers in Finals?
These are lifetime what ifs, old men in the bar what ifs, alone with your thoughts in the dark what ifs.
This is why this moment now is vital for the Rockets, this is a chance to grasp this karmic turn. Kevin Durant’s calf injury in the third quarter of the Warriors’ 104-99 Game 5 win on Wednesday night knocked the series from its orbit.
It changed their opportunity. In a flash, the Rockets’ underdog status was nullified. No Durant. No DeMarcus Cousins. Steph Curry in some bizarre funk that’s afflicted his entire game for a week. Houston had already vaporized the Warriors’ 20-point lead.
The Warriors understood it. They huddled as Durant hobbled down the tunnel and stared at each other.
“We all looked at each other,” Curry said. “There were a couple smiles in terms of what that meant for us as a team–the guys that were going to need to step up in those moments.”
The Rockets knew it too. It was a three-point game with 14 minutes left. Durant was gone. They all suspected it was serious, possibly his Achilles.
Iman Shumpert, who had been closest to Durant when he shot moments before the injury swore Durant hadn’t landed on him. He asked his teammates if they had seen it, thinking maybe in the moment he hadn’t felt Durant.
“Even in times of war you don’t want to hurt another guy,” Shumpert said.
He hadn’t landed on Shumpert, they told him. It was non-contact and he’d looked back as if someone had kicked him, the classic reaction to an Achilles or calf injury. The Rockets knew Durant wasn’t coming back.
They knew that if they could win those 14 minutes they’d have the leverage. This was a chance to change the direction of history. It was a chance to make Game 5 the last-ever Warriors game at Oracle Arena.
With the win in reach, Paul scored just three points, going 0-of-3 shooting. Harden, perhaps due to some fatigue, came out with nine minutes left in a change from normal practice. When he came back in after a breather, the Rockets were down by one point with seven minutes to play. Harden took a single shot in those final minutes.
With this precious chance in their palms, the Rockets just couldn’t execute it.
The memories will instead be of Curry finally breaking out, scoring 12 points in the fourth quarter, the Rockets not agile enough to smother him though the Warriors were forced to deploy a lineup with limited shooting options.
Of the Warriors dodging the bullet and bounding into the locker room with a 3-2 series lead and learning that the manual testing showed Durant had avoided an Achilles injury. Of coach Steve Kerr, channeling Liverpool FC coach Jurgen Klopp’s inspirational speech from the day before, labeling his team “f—–g giants.”
The Warriors won a game without Durant to lean on where they’d scored just 47 points in the second half. And the Rockets added another layer to their Warriors nightmare.
The Rockets can’t go out this way. They may never be able to get over it. Paul has worked his entire career to get to this type of chance. He’s dealt with blow after blow in the postseason.
One year, when he was in New Orleans, pick-and-roll partner Tyson Chandler got hurt. Twice when Paul was with the LA Clippers he lost star teammate Blake Griffin in the playoffs, once to an ankle injury and once to a foot injury.
In 2015, Paul hurt his hamstring and missed two games in a second-round series the Clippers lost. In 2016, he broke his hand with his team up 2-1 against the Portland Trail Blazers and his team lost the next three games without him.
Then, of course, last year he went down in the final seconds of Game 5 as the Rockets grabbed a 3-2 series lead. The rest you remember: the Warriors won Games 6 and 7 en route to another title.
Harden has been struggling to get back to the Finals since 2012. His tenure in Houston has been defined by glorious regular seasons and then letdowns in the playoffs. After a tremendous Game 3 and 4 this week in Houston, Game 5 was right there for Harden to take.
He did not.
But Durant will unlikely be back for Game 6 or a potential Game 7. Paul, Harden and the rest of the Rockets missed the opening presented to them in Game 5. But like the Warriors last season, who rallied after seeing Paul go down, the length of a playoff series affords them a last chance.
Missing this one, in the wake of last season, would be pure misery. The Rockets now have something they really didn’t expect: the advantage. They always said they believed they could win straight up, but their reliance on whistles at the series’ outset told the true tale: to beat the Warriors, they needed some sort of assistance.
A false step by Durant has presented them within reach of that brass ring. Paul is 34. Harden has chomped the apple many times without reaching his goal. This right here might be it, a last best chance.
“We want their best shot, you know what I mean?” Paul said. “Hopefully (Durant’s) all right. We’ll see.”
We will see about a lot.