This postseason, unfairly or not, was always going to serve as a referendum on James Harden and Chris Paul. The two guards, with varying degrees of playoff lowlights on their resumés, joined forces last summer thanks to a singular obsession to take down the Warriors, and of all the teams who entered the NBA’s arms race, Houston is the last one standing in the West. Paul especially took a risk, deciding to play on a one-year contract as a 33-year-old when he could have tried to sign a massive max deal instead. Regardless of whether or not the Rockets actually do make the Finals, there’s no question in my mind Paul made the right decision.
It’s kind of remarkable that the Rockets even work. Of all the superstar pairings made over the last few seasons, Paul and Harden easily made the least sense. Both are ball dominant. They often play at different speeds. Harden is all about threes, layups and free throws, while Paul’s best weapon is arguably his midrange game. Despite all those differences, Paul and Harden immediately found a way to coexist. Houston had a 13.6 net rating when the two shared the court this season, which is 5.1 points per 100 possessions better than the team’s already league-leading 8.5 net rating during the regular season.
If there’s one positive consequence of Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Warriors, it’s that it creates a lane for pairings like Harden and Paul. The two guards may not have wanted to pool their talents if a juggernaut wasn’t lurking in their conference, but Golden State’s overwhelming status as favorites has changed the calculus for teams and players alike. One MVP candidate and a bunch of solid role players isn’t enough to sniff the Finals in the West. The Warriors have forced shotgun marriages like Paul and Harden, and right now, those two players have helped push Golden State the furthest in a playoff series since Durant joined the team.
Certainly, it seems like moving the goalposts to say that anything short of a championship would be a success for the Rockets. But the Warriors’ talent is that much better than everyone else’s. This is a team that literally swept its entire conference last season. Of Golden State’s 16 playoff wins in 2017, 12 came by double digits, and 13 came by nine points or more. There are no answers for the Warriors, who are seemingly only ever slowed down by complacency or lack of focus.
But the Rockets find themselves with an incredible opportunity, a realistic chance at making the Finals. If you had told the team before the season they would be playing a best-of-three series against Golden State—with homecourt advantage—with a championship berth at stake, it would have leapt at the opportunity.
Along the way to the back half of the conference finals, Paul has exorcised the demons that were arguably largely ascribed to him. Up 3–1 against the feisty Jazz, Paul acknowledged that those kinds of leads haven’t been kind to him in the past. So he responded with 41 points in the closeout game, shooting 8-of-10 from three and burying Utah. In Game 4 of the West Finals, battling a foot injury, Paul scored an efficient 27 points in 42 minutes. He helped steady his teammates when they faced double-digit deficits in the first and fourth. And the Rockets ultimately snapped Golden State’s NBA-record 16-game winning streak at home.
You can’t always judge decisions on the results. That sounds absurd to some people, but life is more so about putting yourself in a position to succeed than actually expecting to succeed in the face of conspiring forces.
Chris Paul, after years of being often unfairly maligned (but sometimes fairly) for his postseason failures, is in the best position of his life to finally make an NBA Finals. That should count for something! If the Rockets don’t make it, it won’t be because Paul choked or couldn’t live up to the moment. We’ve already seen him come through in huge games during this run. No, if Houston doesn’t make it, it will be because they ran up against one of the best teams ever constructed.
Paul made the right decision to sign in Houston. He’s already destroyed the narrative about his inability to lead his team to the third round. Now he’s only two wins away from playing in his first Finals. Nothing is supposed to come easy in the NBA, even if certain players can make it look that way. Paul may not win a championship this year. But the fact that he’s come this close, the fact that he’s changed the narrative about how he’s capable of performing in the postseason, means he made the right decision anyway.