Nobody is at 100 percent anymore. No one still playing after 82 regular-season games and two full rounds of playoff basketball is fully healthy. Everyone’s banged up, sore, or hurt.
Just ask Mike D’Antoni about Chris Paul.
“There’s nothing wrong at all. … We’re not gonna win without [Paul], so if he’s got to limp and drag his leg to the finish line, so be it,” D’Antoni said before the Warriors walloped the Rockets by 41 points in Game 3. During Houston’s Game 2 win, Paul left the game with a lower leg injury, but the game’s result overshadowed the implications of the wound; no one asked D’Antoni or Paul about it until pregame Sunday. And once a reporter finally broached the subject, the coach hid his doubts. “I don’t perceive any problem, but you never really know with anybody, but he’s ready to go.”
The Rockets weren’t. Houston looked outmatched once again Sunday night. Harden faded. The role players didn’t hit shots like they did in Game 2. And Paul struggled mightily. It looked like he took the “drag his leg to the finish line” comment seriously, as he posted 13 points on 16 shot attempts and finished up a minus-18. Paul’s typical impact on the Rockets’ rhythm wasn’t just erased; it was used against his own team.
Paul missed six of his eight 3s and three of his patented midrange jumpers. He turned the ball over twice and was swallowed up by the Warriors’ athleticism on most of his drives to the rim. The guard went to the free throw line only twice the entire game. And in the third quarter, when Curry decided to make the game his own one-man show, it was Paul who was left in the dust as the Warriors point guard raced by him on what seemed like every trip down the floor. Watch these highlights and tell me who’s supposed to be the guard who’s not 100 percent:
Paul was not listed on any injury report, but the way he played Sunday night, one would have thought the Rockets would have at least written a built-in excuse into the game program. Sure, there’s a chance nothing is actually wrong, and CP3 is just struggling because he’s watching Orange Is the New Black pregame …
Hold up ... is that ‘Orange is the New Black’ CP3 is watching pregame pic.twitter.com/M4LScMRHUF— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) May 20, 2018
… but Paul recently played one of the best games of his playoff career, scoring 41 points and adding 10 assists and seven rebounds to close out the Jazz and get himself to his first conference finals. Nobody is as good as the Warriors at turning strengths into weaknesses: During this series, while Houston has had Paul on the floor without Harden, the team has been minus-20.1; with both on, the number improves to minus-6.1. Staggering minutes isn’t working for D’Antoni like it did during the regular season. But this dip in Paul’s production can’t all be chalked up to the Warriors’ stalwart defense. The Point God is 33, and this season has not been one without its fair share of injuries. He sat out the first month of the season with a left knee problem, missed three games in March with a hamstring injury, and played only 58 games—the fewest he’s suited up for since 2009-10.
Paul has dispelled the notion that he can’t achieve playoff success, but running into the Warriors’ wall is like standing in a long line outside a roller coaster only to realize there’s an even longer one inside. Therein lies the problem for Houston going forward, not just in this series, but into the offseason. To have a shot at beating the Warriors, Paul and Harden have to be on the floor together and at their best at nearly all times. And then the Rockets need even more. If Harden and Paul aren’t in top gear, the Rockets have no shot at all.
Paul will be a free agent this offseason and will likely want a max contract from Houston. But is it the best option for the Rockets to lock themselves into paying him $30 million to $35 million for the next few seasons? Welcome to Daryl Morey’s summer jigsaw puzzle.
When healthy, the Point God has shown he can still have his usual supernatural impact on a team, fool defenses with his yo-yo dribble, and break ankles with the threat of his stepback jumper. The question that will determine this series and what happens with the Rockets going forward is: What if he isn’t healthy?