By Jason Keidel
We’re often told that life is unfair, and it’s often true. So one of the reasons we love sports is the fairness of the final score, the zero-sum reality of the result. Sports, unlike the rest of the world, is a true meritocracy. If the regular-season isn’t enough to prove which teams are best, we add a playoff to make sure.
So then the Golden State Warriors were clearly better than the Houston Rockets. Except they weren’t. The Warriors clearly won the Western Conference fair and square. Except they didn’t. Unfortunately, even the NBA can be plagued by more than a bad bounce. In this case, a bum leg.
With one minute left in Game 5 of this series, the Rockets were befuddling the Warriors with the players and the plan that GM Daryl Morey acquired and devised with only one goal in mind — defeat the Dubs. Morey even said his singular obsession was competing with and replacing the Warriors as the NBA club nonpareil. And after 47 minutes in Game 5, with the Rockets about to elbow their way to a 3-2 lead, knowing that the team that wins such games ends up winning the series 83 percent of the time.
But not even the best teams can plan for their point guard pulling his hamstring. Not just any point guard, but the point guard you brought here for this very moment, to close the gap between the two clubs, the perennial All-Star and surefire Hall of Famer. Chris Paul limped off the court at the end of Game 5 and was the only Rocket not smiling or celebrating over their 3-2 series lead.
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Perhaps he was prescient. Perhaps CP3 knew the series was over, but not in the manner he’d hoped. It’s hard to recall such a pall over a team that just came within one game of reaching the NBA Finals. Sure, there were two more games to be played, and there were murmurs that Paul would play, or at least pull a Willis Reed moment, amble onto the court just long enough to fuel the team for 48 enchanted minutes.
The truth is the Rockets lost the series when Chris Paul came up lame. This isn’t sour grapes or simply hating on the Warriors. I had zero rooting interest in either team and even picked the Warriors to win the series. We simply want the two best teams to play at full strength so that there are no caveats, regrets, or implicit asterisks. In each of the last two games, the Rockets surged out to a double-digit lead and stretched to a 15-point bulge in the first-half last night. They played with their hearts and heads, lunging for loose balls, leaving their souls on the hardwood.
But they went on a frigid streak from the field, and especially the three-point line — including 2-of-13 from James Harden. It was in those moments when they couldn’t buy a bucket, that Chris Paul was so essential. In Game 5 Harden went 0-of-11 from three-point range, yet Paul picked up the slack by scoring 18 points in the second half, along with seven rebounds, six assists, three steals, and zero turnovers.
Your star point guard makes the proper pass or slashes toward the basket to warm the team up, as CP3 had done so many times this season, and in this series. Doris Burke said that Paul made shots that willed his team to win, and she sure wished she’d seen him on the court for Game 7. Indeed.
It’s not whining if it’s fact. The fact is the Houston Rockets were 61-12 with CP3 on the floor. They were 15-11 without him. The Rockets (65-17) finished the regular season seven games ahead of the Warriors (58-24), winning two of their three games against Golden State. They were 3-2 in the playoffs against the Warriors with Paul, and 0-2 sans CP3. If you call that coincidence, then you likely live in Oakland.
And while folks may reflexively say, “Houston will just be back there next year, and this time CP3 won’t be hurt.” Really? CP3 is now an unrestricted free agent. Does he even play for the Rockets next year? Does Houston care to offer a super-max deal to a point guard who will be 34 next spring? If Paul couldn’t play through May this year, how is he assured to play into June next year?
There are too many variables in the interminable NBA season to guarantee anything, except that the Warriors are going to the NBA Finals. And they earned it. Well, sort of.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.