James Harden and Chris Paul have not been playing poorly. Let’s get that out of the way right now. In the two games thus far versus Golden State, The Beard is sporting averages of 32 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals, and this is despite missing an entire quarter of Game 2 with a cut on his eye and blood coming from both eyes. (As an aside, when was the last time you saw a player get injured, and the sporting world actually spends their time making fun of him instead of wishing him well? But no... there’s no Beard bias. Really.)
As for Paul, he’s averaging 17.5 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals per game, which is actually an increase from his regular season averages in points, rebounds, and steals.
But as the Rockets head back to Houston down 2-0 to the Dubs, they are finding that these two merely being good simply isn’t good enough.
The Rockets are talented enough to beat most playoff teams when these two aren’t playing at their absolute best, but this isn’t your run-of-the-mill contender thy’re matched up against. This is, in fact, the media-anointed greatest team of all-time, and if the Rockets have any hopes of turning this thing around, they’re going to need at least one of these guys, if not both, to be at their peak.
This is another legacy-defining opportunity for both players. I don’t need to break down the list of times these two have fallen short in the postseason. Both guys’ lack of a ring is mentioned practically every day on Twitter whenever someone wants to denigrate the Rockets or their accomplishments.
The 33-year-old Paul, in particular, has the sands slowly slipping out of his hourglass right before our very eyes. He’s been uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball, averaging 4.5 turnovers per game, his passes have lacked their normal crispness, and his floor generalship has been noticeably lacking so far in this series.
He has solid percentages, shooting 48 percent from the field and 38 percent from beyond the arc, but he hasn’t hit much that you could deem really clutch. In fact, the with the Rockets searching for a spark offensively when Harden went down in Game 2, they mostly got it from Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon, not their future-Hall-of-Fame point guard.
We’ve seen this coming for a little while now from Paul. He just hasn’t seemed right most of the season, and we’ve been waiting for him to turn on the juice all year. Despite the Paul of old occasionally still showing up (he went for 23 points and 17 assists in a win versus the Dubs earlier this year), it’s possible this is simply just who he is now.
Still, just like an aging prize fighter who still has one masterful performance on the big stage left in him, it felt like Paul was ready to step up in a redemption opportunity after bowing out of last year’s Western Conference Finals with a balky hamstring that essentially cost the Rockets a ring.
Now with Houston in a hole, this is a chance for the Point God to shrug off the ringless narrative that’s surrounded him his whole career with some clutch play, or it’s a chance to simply add more fuel to the fire.
As for Harden, his struggles have come in the form of poor shooting. The Beard was actually better in Game 2 after injuring his eye, but for the series, he’s shooting just 38 percent from the field and 30 percent from three. If CP3 is already playing at close to his maximum due to age, the Rockets simply need more from Harden. He put up a 44-point triple double in a win at Oracle back in January, and The Beard needs to have a few those to save this series and Houston’s season.
At age 29 and one the league’s more durable players, The Beard still has several seasons of his prime left to change his ringless narrative if this season falls through. Should the Rockets fail to win a ‘ship, you can bet team management will be working feverishly to upgrade a roster that could really use another wing defender (Iman Shumpert’s been butt) and a power forward with some length and shooting.
Paul’s future should Houston falter is a little murkier, however. His $40 million per year contract is pretty prohibitive at this stage of his career, so I don’t forsee him going anywhere in the short term. But you can bet if he continues to show obvious signs of decline that Daryl Morey will be looking for a way out eventually.
None of that is even a topic for discussion, however, if these two can step up their play back in H-town and turn this back into a series. This team took three out of four from Golden State in the regular season, and if they can return the favor by holding down their own home court, the Rockets would still have to just win one game at Oracle to take the series.
Most championship teams face at least a little bit of adversity on their way to a title. It’s what brings a team together, makes them believe. With Harden hurting and the team licking their wounds, this is a defining moment for the 2018-2019 Houston Rockets and a pivotal moment in both star player’s careers.
The Rockets can get this thing done, but they’re going to need Harden and Paul at their best in order to do so.