James Harden rolled his eyes and sighed through the thick brush of beard hiding most of his face during the postgame news conference. Chris Paul shrugged off the injury question, but in private conversations, the veteran point guard acknowledged that something wasn’t OK.
His foot was bothering him — badly. He couldn’t push off, couldn’t explode. He was moving slowly, getting beaten on defense. If it were January, maybe he wouldn’t have even been on the court. But this was Game 3 of the Western Conference finals and Paul wasn’t going to miss it.
His presence hardly mattered. The Warriors drubbed Paul’s Rockets by 41, the most lopsided beating he had taken in the playoffs in nine years.
He’d been down this road before with the Clippers — lessons he learned in blowout wins and losses that were erased the next game.
In 2015, Paul and the Clippers got beaten by 27 in San Antonio to go down 2-1 to the Spurs, the defending NBA champions. He was awful that game, with just one more point than his six turnovers. Two days later, thanks to his 34 points on just 19 shots and seven assists, the Clippers evened things on San Antonio’s home court before going on to win the series in seven games.
So he knew what no one outside of the Rockets’ locker room did. His team would be OK if he could be OK.
“I called him after Game 3 and he said, ‘Coach, I'm telling you, if I can get my foot right, we'll beat these guys,’ Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said late Tuesday after the Rockets’ Game 4 win. “Lo and behold, he got his foot right.”
Now, at least until Game 5 on Thursday in Houston, everything’s right with the Rockets.
During their 95-92 win in Game 4 here, the Rockets relied heavily on Paul as they came back from double-digit deficits in the first and fourth quarters. He scored a series-best 27 points, including eight in the fourth quarter when heavy legs and high-pressure defense made baskets incredibly tough to make.
“It was a huge difference,” Paul said of the foot he injured in Game 2.
A healthier, productive Paul gives the Rockets the added dimensions their offense needs. While Houston will continue to lean heavily on Harden, two more performances like this from Paul, and the Warriors could be eliminated before the finals for the first time since 2014.
Paul did the incredible during Game 4. After Draymond Green turned down an open look and waited patiently for Stephen Curry to come open in the corner for a big three, Paul answered with a long-range shot of his own to stifle any momentum.
Paul found himself trapped in the corner in front of the Golden State bench by Curry, the sideline and baseline. With the shot clock winding down, Paul performed some wizardry. Trevor Ariza cut through the lane, drawing Green near the basket, and then flared back to the opposite corner. At the last second, Paul wrapped a bouncing curveball around Green to Ariza, who nailed a huge three-pointer.
“That’s him being a bowler,” Ariza said, “because he spun that one.”
Paul’s health going forward will be the key for the Rockets. After Game 4, Paul said he was as good as he’s going to be, and that he was “cool.”
Don’t believe him.
Paul said he was “cool” before Game 3. He’s said he was “cool” when his knees and joints have ached, when his ligaments have been sprained, when his muscles have been bruised.
His play doesn’t lie. It can’t.