As game three of the Western Conference finals approached, the basketball universe collectively tensed up. Golden State hadn’t lost at home during the playoffs in the Kevin Durant era. Despite the Herculean efforts of LeBron James in the 2017 Finals, we had yet to see this team even break a sweat since KD made his decision. We thought we knew what was coming. The Houston Rockets, the supposed worthy challengers to Golden State’s reign, were just one Steph Curry shimmy away from falling back down to earth.
The Warriors are fun, but this competitive imbalance has grown tiresome for most of us. We wanted to believe that the Warriors are vulnerable. We wanted badly for the Rockets to convince us, even just for a day, that there was still hope. We just wanted a reason to watch game five.
I still can’t believe it happened.
Houston stunned the basketball world with 95-92 victory in the oracle on Tuesday night; a win that was as fun to watch as it was unlikely to happen.
The Rockets needed a MVP level performance from James Harden if they were to hang close in this one. They did get one in the first half—particularly in that second quarter. The beard found his rhythm, hit some tough threes and banished Draymond Green to the shadow realm with a dunk that almost broke NBA Twitter.
It was as exciting and encouraging a first half that Houston could have drawn up. They held a strong lead. The door was left open for them. But a storm was looming. We all knew what was coming next.
The third quarter started and Golden State pounced.
It was a vintage third quarter from the Warriors—the kind we’ll have a hard time explaining to our grandchildren, even in the YouTube era. There’s nothing quite like watching them do it in real time. It just happens so damn fast. You can’t help but admire what you’re seeing, but if you’re rooting for the upset, the sense of futility and helplessness is freaking soul crushing. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be on the wrong end of that natural disaster.
The Warriors hit them with a 34-17 run over those 12 minutes.
Houston was left stunned. The MVP version of Harden who had shown up in that first quarter disappeared. For all of Harden’s iso ability, the play style that’s built around his skill set doesn’t have a lot of failsafes. We’ve seen what happens in the past to a Harden-led team when he goes cold—the entire offense crumbles. With Harden’s iso game stalling, the Rockets were in desperate of someone stepping up and stopping the bleeding.
This is exactly why Daryl Morey decided to “up his risk profile” this past summer. This is exactly why Chris Paul is in Houston.
CP3 was phenomenal in what might have been the most important half of his career. As Harden settled for fadeaway threes over a depleted Warriors roster that was in foul trouble, Paul probed the defense for better looks with his patented, shifty movement inside the arc. He did damage with his signature mid-range fadeaway and created three point opportunities for his teammates with his penetration. Harden looked shook, but Paul was in control. The point God saved the series, and perhaps the NBA season altogether.
It’s the type of play we’ve seen from Paul countless times over the course of his career, but not something we’ve had the privilege of seeing on this stage. We’ve waited over a decade to see him make an impact at this level.
The Rockets provided Paul with something he’s never had—a championship level roster. In turn, he provided them with what they’ve been looking for since the Harden trade—a worthy co-star. Paul needed Houston, Houston needed Paul, and we needed that combination to provide us with something we weren’t sure we’d get to see: a true challenge for Golden State.
It’s only one game. The Rockets have a long way to go and there’s a good chance that this is as close as they get. But it’s closer than anyone’s been before.
We’ve got a series.