OAKLAND, Calif. — Silver linings aren’t possible when a future first-ballot Hall of Famer misses the most important game of his career due to injury, but the Rockets can console themselves with this fact: They have played a lot, and won quite a bit, without Chris Paul in the lineup this season.
Houston announced Friday that Paul would miss Game 6 of the West finals against Golden State due to a right hamstring strain suffered during the closing minute of a Game 5 win. The nine-time All-Star point guard was forced from action after falling to the court while attempting a turnaround jumper.
Paul, 33, has an extensive history of hamstring trouble, including a similar injury that caused him to miss multiple games during the 2015 playoffs. It’s unclear when or if he will return to the court for the Rockets, who hold a 3–2 series lead over the defending champs and are aiming for their first Finals appearance since 1995.
“It’s not something we wanted,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Friday. “I hate it for [Paul], above all. He’s practically won us the last two games. … Hopefully the team rallies around it and wins one for him, get him back and get him where he wants to go.”
While it’s easy to forget given how well the Rockets played down the stretch, Paul did miss 24 games this season. The difference in Houston’s performance this season with and without Paul was stark, but the Rockets remained a steady winner when he was sidelined.
With Paul, Houston went 50–8, equivalent to a whopping 71–win clip. Without him, Houston went 15–9, equal to a 51-win pace. For perspective, only two teams in the West won 51 or more games this season: Houston and Golden State. And unlike Paul’s old Clippers teams, the Rockets are equipped with another superstar playmaker in James Harden to shoulder the ball-handling duties.
“We don’t want to just be down on [Paul’s injury],” Harden said. “We don’t want to come and be pouting around. We want to keep our same swagger, our same positive energy. We try to feed that off to [Paul] as well: Be happy, be ready, get this [hamstring] right, get this thing going and be back in no time.”
The first step for getting by without Paul will be promoting Sixth Man of the Year candidate Eric Gordon to the starting lineup. This shouldn’t be a shock to Gordon’s system: he started 30 games this season, he has started 79% of his games as a pro, and he’s averaged 18.2 PPG in the West finals against Golden State.
Gordon is not as accomplished or as skilled as Paul, but he fits neatly into a new-look starting lineup that will also include Harden, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela. Like Paul, Gordon can score, initiate offense, space the floor off Harden, switch through perimeter assignments and play bigger than his size on defense.
“We’ve played a lot of games like this so it’s not uncharted territory,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll play the exact same way. We have to play better. We have to shoot the ball better. But it will not change anything we do or how we do it.”
Although Houston’s Game 6 starters made just four starts together this season, they logged 160 minutes together during the regular season, making them Houston’s fourth-most-used lineup. It’s worth noting that their offensive and defensive efficiency numbers were quite similar to Houston’s starters with Paul in the lineup.
Houston’s starters with Paul: 267 minutes | 107.2 Off. Rating | 104.4 Def. Rating | +2.9 Net
Houston’s starters with Gordon: 160 minutes | 105.5 Off. Rating | 102.4 Def. Rating | +3.1 Net
During the playoffs, the Rockets’ new starters have been even better, albeit in a smaller sample size.
Houston’s starters with Paul: 204 minutes | 107.7 Off. Rating | 97.3 Def. Rating | +10.4 Net
Houston’s starters with Gordon: 61 minutes | 139.3 Off. Rating | 103.4 Def. Rating | +35.8 Net
D’Antoni has leaned more heavily on the Gordon + starters lineup during the postseason, as it’s become his second-most-used lineup. In 14 minutes spread over five games, that group has outscored Golden State 47–22, producing a +25 differential that is the best for any Houston lineup in this series. What’s more, Gordon + the starters has the best offensive rating of any lineup in the 2018 playoffs that has logged at least 25 minutes played.
Other than missing out on Paul’s passing ability and command, this group doesn’t require any major strategic sacrifices. The Rockets can still switch to their hearts’ content on defense, they can still hunt mismatches on offense and they can still keep at least four shooters on the court at all times.
“I was just telling them again today, we want to get up between 40 and 50 threes,” D’Antoni said after the Rockets attempted a series-high 43 three-pointers in their Game 5 win on Thursday. “If you make them, you make them. There is nobody out there trying to miss them so don’t worry about it. Get them up, get a good shot and let’s go on to the next one.”
Life will get trickier for D’Antoni when it comes to managing the trickle-down effects of Paul’s absence, as the coach has clung to a seven-man rotation during this series. D’Antoni indicated on Friday that his first move would be to lean more heavily on Gerald Green, a gunner who is shooting 40% on threes against Golden State. But playing only six guys seems untenable given Golden State’s ability to apply pressure, especially on the road.
D’Antoni’s next batch of options all require some degree of sacrifice. He said that he would “probably” dust off defensive-minded forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who opened the series in the rotation but has shot just 2–13 as he copes with a lingering shoulder injury. Even if Mbah a Moute is a zero on offense, his defensive versatility could help Houston buy time for its key starters.
The other options are even less palatable. D’Antoni could test out 36-year-old wing Joe Johnson, a shot-making hero of the 2017 playoffs who fell off a cliff this season. Or, he could try stretch forward Ryan Anderson, a sub-par defender who would likely be targeted immediately by Golden State’s attack. Regardless of whether he turns to Mbah a Moute, Johnson and/or Anderson, D’Antoni will be stuck turning to a one-way player in a series that has been driven by interchangeable lineups stocked with two-way talents.
But the biggest question facing the Rockets in Game 6 is whether they can survive without Paul’s intangibles. In Game 4, he helped lead multiple comebacks and hit crucial shots down the stretch. In Game 5, he took the fight to Stephen Curry, shimmying in his face during the third quarter before bringing home an ugly win again in the fourth. Houston was already blitzed off the court in this series during a Game 3 blowout, and Harden will be stuck facing even more defensive attention in Game 6 after struggling with his shooting efficiency since Game 1.
“We’re extremely confident, as usual, from top to bottom,” Harden said. “This is nothing new to us. Whether it’s myself or Chris or anybody else who has sat out a few games, guys have stepped in and contributed very well. So it’s no different.”