Culture / Sporting Life

Crutch City — Rockets Would Have Beat the Warriors With a Healthy Chris Paul

And Both Teams Absolutely Know It After Game 7

BY // 05.29.18

The night ends with Stephen Curry plucking his unfairly adorable 5-year-old daughter Riley out of the crowd and taking her right back to the trophy ceremony with him. It’s another feel good Golden State Warriors moment. As if America hasn’t had enough of these already.

It always seems to end with a Warriors party. With Klay Thompson doing something silly, with Kevin Durant acting so chill, with 7-foot bench warmer Zaza Pachulia getting way more excited than you’d expect. The cruel twist on this night, after this swerving roller coaster of a Game 7, is that this easily could have been a Houston Rockets party.

If only Chris Paul’s right hamstring hadn’t torn in the closing minute of Game 5. If only, if only…

It isn’t sour grapes, poor sportsmanship or revisionist history for Rockets fans to feel like this after Warriors 101, Rockets 92 on Memorial Day night. It is just an honest view of the harsh reality. If the Rockets would have had Paul they likely would have had just enough to end (or at least interrupt) this grand Golden State dynasty.

From Clutch City to Crutch City. With hamstring heartbreak.

Imagine if these Warriors lost their second best player (take your pick between Curry and Kevin Durant) late in this series. Do you think they’re withstanding these Rockets?

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Of course not. The NBA, more than any pro sport, seems to be haunted by these what ifs. What if Isiah Thomas does not sprain his ankle in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals? The Pistons likely win and maybe run off three straight titles, cementing them as one of the best teams of all time. What if Greg Popovich has Tim Duncan off the floor late in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals to grab the rebound that Chris Bosh gets out to Ray Allen for that series-stealing 3-pointer.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni already lived more of these NBA What Ifs than any man should have to during his run with the Phoenix Suns. (See the absurd David Stern leaving-the-bench suspensions that completely changed the 2007 Western Conference Finals for Exhibit A of many.)

Now, D’Antoni’s lived through another one in Houston.

“I hate it for him,” the Rockets coach says of Paul’s excruciating forced absences. “He’s probably more devastated than anybody.” Well, maybe one person is equally devastated.

D’Antoni completely out coaches Steve Kerr for most of these Western Conference Finals. He somehow gets the Rockets to Game 7 and up 53-42 at halftime. But it can’t last. Not against these Warriors. Not without Chris Paul.

There is no one to steady the Rockets during the Warriors’ clockwork precise third quarter run (the U.S. Postal Service only wishes it is as reliable as Golden State in third quarters) like Paul steadied them in Game 5 during the third.

“In the second half, our pace just wasn’t there,” James Harden says in his postgame press conference.

Daryl Morey’s Faults

There is no blaming Harden for this one. This isn’t last year and that Game 6 vs the Spurs. The man a segment of fans will always love to criticize puts up a 32-6-6 line with the Warriors’ entire defense fixated on him.

You can (and should) blame Rockets general manager Daryl Morey for signing Ryan Anderson to a four-year, $80 million contract that’s haunting this franchise more and more by the day. You can also fault Morey for not finding a better wing than Trevor Ariza, who shows every bit of his painful offensive limitations in an 0-for-12 (0 for 9 on 3-pointers) Game 7.

But you also have to give Morey credit for signing P.J. Tucker, who has turned into the heart and soul of this team in so many ways. Tucker is all over the floor in Game 7, out hustling everyone on the court for stretches, grabbing eight offensive rebounds to give his team chance after chance after chance.

Only there is no real chance without Paul.

When Curry starts hitting threes in the third, Durant becomes more comfortable and suddenly Thompson is popping free and draining long treys too, his first half foul trouble quickly forgotten. Give Kerr credit for recognizing the truth of what happened in this series.

“Our talent took over,” the Warriors coach says. “It’s as simple as that.”

Of course, the talent gap is not quite so wide with Chris Paul on the court.

It turns out it’s not just a math equation as Morey long believed. Shooting an obscene amount of threes does not work if you’re reduced to firing them under duress (or having Ariza take open ones). Houston misses an NBA playoff record 27 straight 3-pointers at one point.

There are TV Bachelors who shoot straighter than this. Of course, there is no way this happens if Paul is on the floor. He finds someone (or himself) a better shot.

When Morey tells ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, “We should have won tonight,” he no doubt comes across as a little bitter. But he’s also telling the absolute truth.

Crutch City? You’d better believe it. The Warriors are only fooling themselves if they think they beat these Rockets with a healthy Paul. They absolutely teetered, wobbled and squabbled in two straight elimination game first halves. Houston just didn’t have the guy who could push them over available. It’s not whining when it’s true.

The Rockets and their fans will be haunted by this What If for a long time. They should be. Deep down, you sense the Warriors and their haughty, self-entitled fans know the real truth too.

Curry cradles the game ball when the final buzzer sounds and takes it with him too. This series win clearly means more to him than most. These dynastic Warriors rarely have been pushed — and never quite like this. Not even in that comeback from 3-1 down to Oklahoma City. Golden State was always the better team than the Thunder. They always should have won that series. This one with the Rockets never held such absolutes. You can even argue the better team lost.

But Curry and the Warriors survived — and now they’re all but assured of their third championship in four years. Because of a hamstring.

“Much respect to the Houston Rockets for just bringing the best out of us and to making this an incredible series,” Durant says afterwards.

Crutch City. It’s not a crown, it’s a heartbreaking curse.

Sometimes, the truth just hurts.

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