After spending much of the regular season fighting injuries and illness, and often losing the battle, the Warriors now have a chance to seize upon the misfortune of their opponent as their last, best chance to reach the NBA Finals.
Chris Paul, who came to Houston's rescue in the second half of Games 4 and 5 of the Western Conference Finals, will not play in Game 6 on Saturday at Oracle Arena.
Furthermore, it's not likely he'll be able to return for Game 7 on Monday in Houston.
And there will be Game 7, because the Warriors, as disheveled as their offense was in Games 4 and 5, are not about to lose a home game to a Rockets team without Paul.
There also is the probability that Andre Iguodala, who missed Games 4 and 5 with a bruise near his left knee, will be available for Game 6. Iguodala is a security blanket for Warriors coach Steve Kerr, and he's WD-40 for his teammates. If something isn't working well, on offense or defense, it works better with Iguodala.
Just as the Rockets exploited Iguodala's absence, winning two games by a total of seven points, the Warriors are in position to take advantage of the Rockets.
There is no replaying the last two games, both of which were lost largely because the Warriors were out-muscled and out-executed by Houston. There is a backbone to these Rockets and that fortitude, more than anything else, is why they've earned a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series.
The nerve center of that backbone is Paul. But his tortured limp off the court with 22.4 seconds remaining in Houston's 98-94 win in Game 5 Tuesday night was seismic. Diagnosed with a hamstring strain, he will remain in Houston and be reevaluated on Sunday.
Hamstring strains simply do not heal in 96 hours.
When Kerr met with reporters Friday morning, he was unaware of the Paul's condition. All he knew was one of his key players had missed two games, while Houston's roster remained fully intact.
"This is what the playoffs are about," he said. "You go through a lot of ups and downs. But, ultimately, somebody has got to win four times.
"So you keep going. Keep playing."
Paul scored 13 points in the second half of Game 4, including a team-high 8 as Houston wiped out a fourth-quarter deficit of 12 points. He was at least as effective on defense, as Warriors guards shot 2-of-12 from the field. Paul was the only member of the Rockets to play all 12 minutes.
He was even better in Game 5. After scoring 2 points in the first half, while shooting 0-of-7 from the field, Paul poured in a team-high 18 points after halftime. While James Harden was going 1-of-8 in the second half, Paul was 6-of-12, including 4-of-6 from deep. Eric Gordon made big shots, too, but Paul was the orchestrator. His leadership pushed gave the Rockets a jolt of audacity.
"When we were kind of teetering, he made two or three 3s," Houston coach Mike D'Antoni said after the game. "That's just his heart. They weren't great shots. They were nothing. He made something out of nothing. His heart, his will to win . . . I don't know how many times everybody's got to see it in the league. He's one of the best players that have played the game."
The Warriors don't want to see anybody forced to the sideline. They also know Paul's absence enhances their chances to win -- just as they know Iguodala's absence increases their chances of losing.
The Warriors have played Houston three times in the regular season and five times in the conference finals. They are 3-1 when Iguodala plays, 0-4 when he does not.
The Warriors have dealt with an assortment of ailments all season, but the Rockets were without Paul for 24 regular-season games, going 15-9 in those games.
His presence matters greatly.
Iguodala's presence matters nearly as much.
"We have a chance to tie the series at home," Kerr said. "That's a pretty good position to be in. We've got to win two basketball games. We've done that an awful lot, so we're very confident.
"All in all, I feel good about our ability to come out in Game 6 and win the game and get some momentum back."
The coach has his reasons, and they are a lot more valid now than 24 hours ago.
|Game 1||Warriors 119, Rockets 106|
|Game 2||Rockets 127, Warriors 105|
|Game 3||Warriors 126, Rockets 85|
|Game 4||Rockets 95, Warriors 92|
|Game 5||Rockets 98, Warriors 94|
|Game 6||Oakland -- Saturday, May 26th at 6pm|
|Game 7||Houston -- Monday, May 28th at 6pm|