So that’s why Houston brought in Chris Paul.
They say a playoff series doesn’t really start until a home team loses, so let’s just say the Rockets and their title-starved point guard gave the Western Conference Finals a restart Tuesday night after surrendering home court advantage in Game 1. The Warriors’ 16-game home playoff winning streak is no more and the Rockets — a rare underdog No. 1 seed — have shown they can bang with the best assemblage of shooters in league history.
As this knotted-up series switches to H-Town for Game 5 on Thursday, the Rockets, who were punked by 41 points in Game 3 at Stephen Curry’s bleeping house, can advance to the NBA Finals simply by holding serve twice at the Toyota Center.
Despite a sore foot, Paul is oh so close to taking a team to special places for the first time in his 13-year career. MVP candidate James Harden led the way with 30 points in Game 4, but it was Paul who put his stamp on this series changer with tough-minded leadership at crunch time and some of the biggest plays of his playoff career.
“Both teams have the ability to win on the road,” Paul told reporters. “We had to prove that to ourselves. Weathering the storm, the runs that they made, and knowing that now we get a chance to go back home, we knew we had to get at least one win here. We got it, so now it’s a three-game series.”
With two more wins, the 33-year-old Paul can exorcise some monstrous playoff demonst. In his six seasons with Los Angeles, the Clippers blew a playoff series lead five times, including the 2015 Western Conference semifinals when they were up 3-1 against Houston. It was the unofficial beginning of Golden State’s run of dominance; the Dubs beat the Rockets in five games in the next round, then went on to capture the franchise’s first championship in 40 years.
Spin ahead to today, and this represents Paul’s best chance for redemption and that elusive first title.
“It’s as good as it’s going to be right now,” he said.
The Warriors were the better team on paper entering the series, but things may have changed. Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson are both nursing knee injuries and coach Steve Kerr blinked by allowing Thompson to take an off-balance jumper in the final seconds when he could have called a timeout to set up a shot for Kevin Durant or Curry, who were both having big nights.
And the worst reality for the defending champs: They landed some thudding blows during another explosive third quarter from Curry but failed to knock the Rockets out. After all of Steph’s shimmying, the Warriors left the door slightly ajar and Paul and Co. kicked it in. Bum Phillips would have been proud.
It was just good to finally see a conference finals game with some drama down the stretch. Before Tuesday, the closest game had been Cleveland’s nine-point win over Boston in Game 2 back East. We’ve seen more blowouts in the last week than every episode of “Soul Train” back in the 1970s, and while there were some hairy moments for both teams — big scoring runs ruled the night — the Rockets never blinked, not even when they were down 12 in the fourth quarter.
Houston already believed it could win at the Oracle. Now the Rockets have shown the one thing that can put a team over the top in a title quest: Resilience. Credit Paul, who had never played in a conference final before this season. Now that he’s here, he has become the unquestioned leader of this club.
Harden showed up for 28 points through three quarters, but Paul closed the show with eight in the fourth, coinciding with Golden State’s 3-for-18 collapse.
Paul is the last of a dying breed — a pure point guard who plays both ends — but also is a master at knowing when to take over a game offensively. Harden couldn’t buy one in the fourth but Paul, with able assists from Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza and some surprising defense from Harden, delivered down the stretch.
“Man, he’s been doing it for so long,” Harden said. “Now he has an opportunity to do it on this stage. I mean everybody knows how great he is, from his passing ability to his big shot-making ability, and even to his defense.”
The team that wins Thursday at the Toyota Center will win this series, and the Rockets know they can’t let up.
Like Paul said, it’s as good as it’s going to be right now but if his team sends the Warriors home for the offseason, it will get even better.