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Houston’s Dramatic Win Cost It Chris Paul

A hamstring strain suffered in the Rockets’ thrilling Game 5 victory will keep the Point God out for at least Game 6. Can James Harden step up in Oakland to launch Houston to the NBA Finals?

Golden State Warriors v Houston Rockets - Game Five Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

A Game 5 victory earned the Rockets a 3–2 series lead in the Western Conference finals and put them on the precipice of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals in over two decades, but it came a big cost. The right hamstring strain Chris Paul suffered late in Thursday’s win will keep him out for Saturday’s Game 6 in Oakland, the team announced Friday. Can we fast forward to Game 7 now?

With less than a minute left in the game and Houston up by a point, Paul drove toward the basket on Quinn Cook, spun, and took a fadeaway shot that missed. Paul landed on his back and immediately grabbed his leg in pain. It seemed like the injury report was writing itself in real time.

It was always going to be difficult to knock off the reigning champs, even with home-court advantage. But given how Houston has frustrated the best offensive team of all time the past two games, a series win for the Rockets finally seemed possible. Just hours later, that now feels like a far-fetched dream.

Houston will try to make up for Paul’s absence like it had in the 24 games Paul missed this regular season: with an increased role for Eric Gordon, per coach Mike D’Antoni. Gordon is the team’s sixth man, but he has been getting starter-level minutes all season. Gordon was sublime in Game 5, outscoring almost every superstar on the court, including James Harden, with 24 points off the bench.

Harden has looked tired and listless the past two games, shooting a combined 34 percent from the field and 13 percent from 3. He hasn’t been alone. After forming a roster that shot the lights out from 3 this regular season on more than 42 attempts per game, the Rockets are shooting a mediocre 33.5 percent from deep in this series. Harden himself has missed 20 3s in a row. Despite D’Antoni’s reputation as an all-offense coach, the Rockets are up in this series thanks to their aggressive defense.

But Harden can’t hide behind his beard any longer. Without Paul, who was averaging 19.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and nearly two steals a game in this series, Harden needs to play like the MVP again for the Rockets to have any shot. Gordon averaged 20.9 points a game during the season when Paul was out, and the expected starting lineup Saturday (Gordon, Harden, Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, and Clint Capela) posted a 3.1 net rating in the regular season and a ridiculous 35.8 net rating in 61 playoff minutes. The Rockets aren’t exactly turning the keys over to Quinn Cook, but they will need more from Harden. D’Antoni also said Friday that after going with only seven players the past two games, the rotation could open up to eight or nine players now, which would provide more rest opportunities for both Gordon and Harden.

It’s hard to say how severe this injury is, but The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported that there’s already pessimism in Houston about the possibility of Paul’s return for a potential Game 7 on Monday. Paul has been in a similar bind before. He played through a hamstring injury to lift the Clippers over the Spurs in Game 7 of their 2015 first-round series, but it kept him out of one game in the Clippers’ second-round series against the Rockets. That may now be best-case scenario.

This Western Conference finals has been an all-out war of attrition. In addition to Paul, Andre Iguodala has missed the past two games and Klay Thompson has looked hobbled. Given all of the injuries piling up in this West slugfest, maybe the Finals won’t be as lopsided as we think.