As Rockets shimmy Warriors to brink of elimination, losing Chris Paul for series would be cruelest of ironies

HOUSTON -- It would be the cruelest of ironies if Chris Paul were to take his team to the precipice of the NBA Finals and then, at the moment when he's almost there -- one 48-minute basketball game away from getting his first shot at a title -- he's forced to stand idly by.

Twelve stellar NBA seasons. Twelve times where Chris Paul had fallen short of making a conference finals. Sometimes it was his fault. Oftentimes it wasn't -- injuries, or circumstances, or just the way the basketball bounces.

Here in his 13th season, perhaps the greatest point guard of his generation has bolted past the once-insurmountable hurdle of making a conference finals. After a 98-94 win on Thursday night, his Houston Rockets stand one victory away from the NBA Finals.

And Chris Paul will now have to watch from the sidelines, at least on Saturday as he's been ruled out for Game 6 with a hamstring strain.

What Paul did in Game 5 on Friday was remarkable. Not in the first half -- before the break, Paul couldn't buy a bucket. He was 0-for-7 from the field, 0-for-3 from 3-point range, with only two points. But he contributed anyway through that slog of a first half: four assists, five rebounds and three steals in a game where Paul's toughness set the tone for this Rockets team. "It won't go down as a classic," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It wasn't pretty-pretty, it wasn't the greatest basketball in the world, but if you're a fan and you like people working hard, you know, you can't work much harder than what they're doing."

Paul fought through his first-half struggles to be the Rockets' leading scorer in the second half with 18 points. He hit a flurry of three 3-pointers in a two-minute span in the third quarter: Off balance, late in the shot clock, hands in his face. On the third three, with Steph Curry blanketed on him, the shot-clock buzzer went off as the ball was falling through the hoop. On the way back down the court, Paul shimmied directly in Curry's face.

"It was well-deserved," Curry said of the shimmy, a response to Curry's post-3-pointer shimmy during Game 4 at Oracle Arena. "It was a tough shot. If you can shimmy on somebody else, you've got to be all right getting shimmied on."

Paul and the Rockets shimmied on the Warriors right down to the final minute, when, up one point, Paul drove into the lane and tossed up a floater from nine feet. Something went wrong with his leg on the way up. The ball bounced off the rim, and Paul grabbed his right hamstring. As the Warriors sprinted down the other way -- perhaps the most important possession of the teams' seasons so far -- Paul couldn't make it. He watched the play unfold from the backcourt, clutching that hamstring, as the Warriors' Quinn Cook missed a wide-open go-ahead 3. He headed to the bench. After the game he headed to treatment, which the Rockets said he'd continue for the next 48 hours in the hope of playing again before the series concludes.

"What he did was remarkable," D'Antoni said of Paul's performance. "When we were kind of teetering, he made two or three 3s. 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. Just his will alone and what it means to basketball. I don't know -- if you can't root for him, I think you've got some problems."

Paul himself has got exactly one problem now: That hamstring. If the Rockets don't close things out in Game 6, can he get right for a possible Game 7? 

To be sure, it wasn't just Paul who lifted the Rockets. It was Eric Gordon and his game-high 24 points. It was the stellar interior defense of Clint Capela, and the stellar perimeter defense of Trevor Ariza. It was the Warriors playing another sloppy game; head coach Steve Kerr blamed the Warriors loss on their 16 turnovers (same as Game 4) as well as their defense that became overaggressive and too often turned into unneeded fouls. Kerr repeated the word "discipline" for what the Warriors most need in Game 6. They also need a Kevin Durant in crunch time; in the fourth quarters of Games 4 and 5, Durant made one field goal, shot 0-for-5 from three and scored a total of eight points.

In the end, it was the same recipe that won the Rockets Game 4: Shoot a bunch of threes, but win the game with toughness and defense.

"They were heavyweight fighters punching it out, and they're not going to let you win on points," D'Antoni said of Game 5. "You've got to knock them out. I thought our guys just hung in there, hung in there. They found a way."

Clinching on the road in a Game 6 would be a tough task to begin with -- especially against these Warriors, and especially at an Oracle Arena that will be jumping. That task will be infinitely tougher without Paul. It's not something any fan of basketball wants to see: An all-time great, watching the biggest games of his career from the sidelines. But if Game 5 was his final game of the 2017-18 season -- and we don't know that yet, but it certainly seems a possibility -- he went out in the most impressive of ways: In D'Antoni's words, with heart and with smarts.

And with a shimmy for the ages.

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