Houston’s bid to win their first Western Conference title since repeating as NBA champions in 1995 took a severe hit Friday when they announced starting guard Chris Paul will miss this contest with a strained hamstring. Paul, playing in the conference finals for the first time in his 13-year career, suffered the injury in the final minute of Thursday’s 98-94 win that gave the Rockets a 3-2 series lead.
An already-short rotation will be further challenged as Eric Gordon steps into the spot created by Paul’s injury. Gordon, who had a team-high 24 points in the Game 5 victory, was one of only two reserves used by coach Mike D’Antoni and played over 36 minutes.
The Rockets overcame 37.2 percent shooting as they turned 16 Warriors turnovers into 18 points. James Harden had 19 points despite shooting five for 21 overall and missing all 11 of his 3-point attempts. The All-Star guard and MVP frontrunner has missed 20 consecutive attempts from beyond the arc going back to the 6:30 mark of the second quarter in Houston’s Game 4 victory.
Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson accounted for 74 of Golden State’s 94 points as they sorely missed Andre Iguodala helping to facilitate the offense for a second straight game. The 2015 NBA Finals MVP is listed as questionable for this game with a lateral leg contusion, and Kevon Looney took just two shots in 22 minutes Thursday night, making them both.
This is Golden State’s first elimination game since losing Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals to Cleveland as they squandered a 3-1 series lead. The Warriors have not lost an elimination game in the Western Conference since Paul’s Clippers beat them in Game 7 in the first round in 2014, and Golden State overcame a 3-1 series deficit versus Oklahoma City in the 2016 conference finals.
Should Golden State stave off elimination, the series will return to Houston for a decisive Game 7 on Monday night.
Three keys to the game
Harden having no talk of shooting woes - While much of the talk following Houston's Game 5 victory was about their defense, one brave soul asked the All-Star about his struggles from the field. The first retort was a "Who cares?" and he then cut off the follow-up question about possibly viewing game tape by responding, "I'm just missing shots.
"But we're winning, and I'm trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we've got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares."
Kerr calm despite facing elimination game - Not having Iguodala and hunting for points resulted in Warriors coach Steve Kerr using guard Quinn Cook in crunch time. While he missed all three 3-point attempts he launched, Kerr was more pleased the young guard did not pass up those shots rather than miss them, and it was part of his overall calm demeanor before the teams headed back to the Bay Area on Friday.
"We've been here before," he said. "We've faced elimination on the road before, this team has, a few years ago. We faced series deficits before. We've won all of those series. Our guys have the ultimate confidence that we can get it done this time too."
D'Antoni not tipping hand on rotation - With Gordon moving into the starting lineup, D'Antoni offered no definites on who would fill that spot coming off the bench, though it appears likely Luc Richard Mbah a Moute could get some playing time after watching the last two games.
At 6' 8", Mbah a Moute has the length that plays well into Houston's defensive philosophy of switching on screens that has served them well the last two games.
"But we play seven guys, and only because the sixth guy takes all those minutes up. I could have my sixth guy play 10 minutes and have the 10th guy play 10 minutes, and hey, I played 10 guys," the Rockets coach explained. "It will change the workload, maybe, of Gerald [Green]. He might get more minutes, maybe not. Luc [Mbah a Moute] will probably play. We'll see how many minutes and go from there."
Matchup to watch
SG Eric Gordon vs SG Klay Thompson - With the various injuries to Harden and Paul during the season, Gordon started 30 games for the Rockets in 2017/18, so being in the first five is old hat for the veteran shooting guard. He has come up big in the fourth quarters of the last two games to put Houston on the cusp of a conference title and had ten points in the final period Thursday.
But this will be just his seventh career playoff start, and none of the previous six had this much pressure riding on them. Thompson finally rediscovered his Game 1 shooting groove Thursday night and finished with 23 points while hitting eight of 14 shots. The Warriors guard, though, will have to get it done on the defensive end of the court if Golden State will send this series back to Houston.
Houston Rockets projected starting lineup
PG - James Harden | SG - Eric Gordon | C - Clint Capela | SF - Trevor Ariza | PF - P. J. Tucker
Golden State Warriors projected starting lineup
PG - Stephen Curry | SG - Klay Thompson | C - Kevon Looney | SF - Kevin Durant | PF - Draymond Green
With Paul's absence, the obvious offensive beneficiaries will be Harden and Gordon, two volume shooters who will just shoot more. Harden has averaged 27.4 points, 5.4 assists and 5.2 rebounds in this series but has shot just 41.4 percent, including 24.5 percent (13 for 53) from 3-point range.
Gordon has averaged 21.7 points in Houston's three victories and 13.0 points in the two defeats. His long-range marksmanship has been better than Harden's at 35.7 percent, but Gordon is also shooting only 40 percent overall.
Durant is still perfect when it comes to scoring 20 or more points in this postseason, doing so in all 15 games after his 29-point effort Thursday. The All-Star forward, though, is just 17 for 46 in the last two games as he has been playing more with his back to the basket in those games as Golden State tries to find a solution to Houston's constant switching.
Curry has averaged 28.3 points in his last three games, but after hitting 11 of 25 from deep in Games 3 and 4, he was just two of eight in Game 5. He was also the victim of a top-notch shimmy by Paul after the Rockets guard drained a 3-pointer over him as the shot clock was winding down.
As expected, the line swung higher in Golden State's favor with the announcement Paul would miss this game for the Rockets. The Warriors were originally 10.5-point favorites, and that has now jumped to 12 as they look to cover for the seventh time in their last eight Saturday games.
Golden State are also 22-8 against the spread in their last 30 games versus teams with a road winning percentage above .600, but they are also 2-5 against the number in their last seven versus opponents who are above .500 on the road. The Warriors have covered just four times in their last 13 home games and 10-24 in their last 34 overall against above-.500 teams.
Houston have covered just once in their last five Saturday games but are 4-1 versus the number in their last five on the road. The Rockets are 5-2 against the spread in their last seven against teams with a winning percentage above .600, but they are also 6-13 in their last 19 matchups with Pacific Division teams.
The over/under has slipped one point to 212.5, with the last two games between the teams coming nowhere close to that. The under has hit in Houston's last four road games and compiled a 14-2 mark in their last 16 against Pacific Division teams, and it also has a 7-1 record in Golden State's last eight games and a 5-0-1 record in their last six following a straight up loss.
It is easy to look at Paul's absence in this game as the Rockets taking their mulligan up 3-2 in this series and taking their chances back home in Game 7. It is the reward for winning 65 games in the regular season, to have the chance to play the most important game of the year on your court.
Yet D'Antoni's talk of how little changes for the Rockets means they will go all-out. While that can still result in the Warriors blowing the doors off them in front of what will be a loud and intimidating Oracle Arena, how Houston fares defensively early will dictate what happens late.
For all the constant switching the Rockets do defensively, this is still the first meaningful game they have played without Paul in over two months. How Gordon chases Thompson through those screens when Golden State run their offense will be an early tell if the Rockets are as connected defensively as they have impressively been over the last two games.
It takes a lot of hard work to hold Golden State under 100 points in consecutive games, and it will take even more for a third such contest. The Warriors went from averaging 21.7 assists in the first three games of this series to totaling 32 in the last two. By comparison, they had five games of 32 or more assists in the first two rounds of this postseason.
Houston's switches have done a good job of preventing the backside attack Golden State's normal offense create. The Warriors cannot afford to stagnate and dump it into Durant in the low post, the strengths of his game do not include playing with his back to the basket a la Carmelo Anthony.
Golden State must keep moving because eventually, that's how breakdowns occur on switches, and the harder the backdoor cuts against an aggressive defense like the one Houston play, the more chances there are for easy baskets.
The TL;DR version is the Warriors also have too much championship pride and swagger to go out on their home court and lose at Oracle Arena a second straight game. This series will go back to Houston as the Warriors find enough offense for a 108-97 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on TNT and nationally in Canada on SportsNet One. Tip-off time is 9 pm EDT.
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