OAKLAND, Calif. — The Houston Rockets believe that with a healthy Chris Paul partnered in the backcourt with James Harden, they’re the team that presents the stiffest challenge to the back-to-back champion Golden State Warriors.
Paul’s teammates refer to him as the X-factor, noting that had it not been for a brutal hamstring injury that sidelined him for Games 6 and 7 of last year’s Western Conference finals with the Rockets holding a 3-2 series lead over the Warriors, Houston would have been in the NBA Finals.
On Saturday at Oracle Arena, Paul delivered the Warriors a troubling reminder that he’s still very problematic, with 23 points, five rebounds, a game-high 17 assists and two steals to lead the Harden-less Rockets to a 118-112 victory.
“What did [Andre Iguodala] say about the series last year? If he would have played, they would have swept us? Then he must be the X-factor,” the 33-year-old Paul told Yahoo Sports in a slight verbal jab at Iguodala, who missed the final four games of last year’s West finals with a leg contusion. “That’s the punchline you needed, right?”
P.J. Tucker, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds and played superb defense all night, painfully recalled how that series unfolded.
“That was tough,” Tucker told Yahoo Sports. “It was tough and early on, I had to get away from the game for a minute. To be that close, to be in that situation, up 3-2, that was tough, man. To lose that way with that feeling going into Game 6, man. I don’t even like talking about it now. It’s still a little difficult to digest. We were really riding high and it was a good feeling. We were rolling. It was the best our team had felt with 65 wins and all that stuff. But I think it makes now even more precious to us. Getting Chris back now and the way we’ve been playing … just getting back comfortable and getting ready to really finish these last 23 games strong.”
The Warriors rallied from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to trim the margin to four with 1:08 remaining. Paul had the ball near halfcourt and was suffocated by 6-foot-7 Klay Thompson.
Shrewdly, the nine-time NBA All-Star noticed Thompson’s arm elevated and he initiated contact and drew the foul. After he sunk the first of two free throws, he pointed to his head, gesturing about his mastery of the mental game. Golden State was done despite not facing Harden, who missed the game with a neck strain.
Paul may not be the speedster he once was, but he’s still plenty effective.
“I know what I’m capable of,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “I’m not worried about what nobody else is talking about. … I’ll find a way [to be successful].”
After winning the first three games of the season-series against the Warriors with the final meeting on March 13, the Rockets are yearning for the opportunity to not only make it out of the West, but to dismantle the Warriors en route.
They want payback.
“We knew it was going to be tough when [Paul] went out last year, and we still have that bad taste in our mouths,” Eric Gordon told Yahoo Sports after scoring 25 points. “I really, truly believe we match up with them very well, and I think we’re the only team that really has a chance in a series with them. There are a lot of good teams out there, but I really think we’re the only team that can give them a tough run.”
Golden State came out flat, giving up 15 unanswered points to start the game. No one in the Warriors’ locker room had an explanation for the sluggish opening.
“I don’t know,” Stephen Curry said. “We’ve had letdowns like that with the Lakers without LeBron [James] and other cases, so we talked about it and tried to keep a pep in our step, but it didn’t come out that way. That’s why we lost.”
The Rockets instead made a statement: They aren’t intimidated by the Warriors and their confidence might prove beneficial should they meet the champs in the postseason again.
And the Rockets’ 6-foot point guard is more than ready for the challenge despite missing 23 games this season because of injury.
“I’m always self-motivated, and anybody who knows me knows that,” Paul told Yahoo Sports. “It’s not about proving it to somebody else. It’s me. I’m harder on myself than anybody else ever can be.”
Golden State is the clear favorite to reach its fifth straight NBA Finals. The team’s abundance of talent and continuity are unmatched. The Rockets, however, have other plans — and it primarily stems from unfinished business.
“It’s motivation to get back there and go further,” Tucker told Yahoo Sports. “If we don’t go further, then the season is a bust for us. If we don’t make it to the Finals, it’s a bust. No matter what happens, we have to get further.”
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