The Rockets have pushed the Warriors to the brink. Houston won a thrilling Game 5 in the Western Conference finals on Thursday, taking a 3–2 lead over Golden State with a 98–94 win. The basketball was often ugly, but the finish was intoxicating. Chris Paul scored 20 points in another signature performance, while Kevin Durant scored 29 in a losing effort. And now, for the first time since Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the Warriors are facing elimination in a playoff series.
Where to begin after such a crazy game? Let’s start with Paul, who overcame a terrible first half to lead Houston to this win. Paul scored only two points in the first two quarters but scored 18 in the final 24 minutes. He did what the Rockets have done to opponents all season—destroy lesser defenders in isolation. Paul was relentless in attacking the likes of Jordan Bell and David West. He also hit some absurd threes in the face of tight pressure, including a shot-clock beater over Stephen Curry that resulted in the best gif of this NBA season.
Unfortunately, Paul couldn’t be on the floor during the game’s final moments, as he appeared to tweak his right hamstring on a late shot attempt. It’s too early to speculate, but this series deserves to have a healthy Paul for the final two games. He’s been incredible this season and during the playoffs. For him to come this far—after two straight remarkable performances—and not be able to compete because of injury would be too cruel an act for even the most ardent Paul haters.
Meanwhile, the Warriors have seen their offense crater during the postseason’s most important moments. A game after hitting only three shots in the fourth quarter, Golden State again looked uncomfortable on the offensive end. Houston has played great defense, getting up into the body of shooters and mostly communicating well on switches. But the Warriors have played into the Rockets hands by force-feeding Durant.
KD is a lethal weapon. He can win a game by himself. But running post-ups and isos for Durant—despite Steve Kerr’s objections after the game—is not the essence of Golden State’s attack. Durant isn’t easy to guard, but the Rockets can shrink the floor easier when he’s holding the ball. Houston gladly cheated off of Bell, Looney or even Draymond Green when Durant iso’d. KD ended up shooting 8-of-22, and as easy as he makes scoring look, Houston will still live with Durant shooting contested jumpers in traffic.
Too often, the KD isos relegated Curry to the corner. The two-time MVP never seemed like the focal point of the offense Thursday, and there’s a legitimate case to be made that Golden State’s offense should run through Curry and Green as opposed to Durant. Throwing it to KD on the block is a good option. The Warriors cutting off the ball and making extra passes is a better option. As well as Houston’s defense has played, making it defend movement for a full shot clock is more challenging than tossing it to Durant at the elbow.
Paul’s performance and the Rockets’ defense covered up for a subpar game from Harden. The MVP frontrunner shot a putrid 5-of-21 from the field, missing all 11 of his three-point attempts. (The most missed threes in a playoff game since John Starks in the 1994 Finals.) Harden survived a night of negative narrative building thanks to Paul, but that’s exactly why the two paired up in the first place. Harden did have some positive moments in the second half, forcing his way to the rim for free throws, and playing solid defense on Curry on a huge possession down the stretch.
Again, the execution lacked at times down the stretch. Some combination of fatigue and pressure seems to be affecting both teams—as it should. These are some high-impact, intense minutes. This is what we all wanted to see before the season. The last two games haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been filled with drama. We can only hope as the series shifts back to Oakland, the high-wire act continues.
Game 6 is Saturday.