Chris Paul is, let’s say, a competitive person, probably to an unpleasant degree. He is also among the all-time greats at his position and finally, in his 13th season, making a deep run into the postseason. And he is also someone who, in the final minute of a conference finals Game 5, with a mere four-point lead over the greatest team of his era, sat on the hardwood clutching his right hamstring, staring on while a 4-on-5 ensued on the other side of the court. He tried once to get up, then settled back down onto his butt. Together these details offer a sense of the scope of Paul’s physical pain in that moment. The sort of dude who could have taken a katana to his Achilles and probably would’ve at least hop-skipped to half-court. For a person with that pathological need for control to accept the role of absent observer at a juncture when the stakes have never been higher—yeah, I don’t really want to know what that feels like.
Paul stiffly made his way off the court and watched the last few game-deciding possessions from the sideline. Sitting on the bench for the final stretch, his face—a tensed-up, near-tears scowl—told us enough about what was going on in his body the time. What the Rockets need to know now, going forward, is how he will be feeling by Game 6 on Saturday, or, more realistically, a Game 7 on Monday back in Houston. This is admittedly a cool image—
—but it does not inspire much confidence in the health of Paul, who played through a sore left hamstring for much of the late regular season, and who appeared to be clutching the other hamstring last night.
Maybe the Rockets still pull this off while missing one of their two stars: They more or less won this game without James Harden, who went 0-for-11 from three last night. And in a (small) 47-minute sample over this series, the Rockets have won the Harden-without-Paul stretches by 11.6 points per 100 possessions. The Rockets switchy, ball-pressuring defense has warped the Warriors’ beautiful game into some unrecognizable playground shootout, wherein Kevin Durant has to be coaxed by Steve Kerr to trust his teammates. So the Rockets are just one game from the NBA finals and it is entirely plausible that they get there. Mike D’Antoni has said that spherical Eric Gordon would shift into Paul’s playmaker role, if needed.
But it would be a cosmic tragedy for Paul, who lit up for 18 points in the second half last night, who was ugly-shimmying right in Steph’s face, to will a team right to the threshold of the NBA finals—finally!—and then just idle there in a nice suit while they faceplant on the stoop. Chris Paul watches his team lose to a malfunctioning Warriors, and he didn’t even get to exert his will on the outcome. That is pain worse than any hamstring, and only his purest haters could wish it on him.