Paul's hamstring injury cast a shadow over Houston's thrilling 98-94 win Thursday for a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals. The Rockets had to play the final seconds of the game without Paul, who hobbled off holding his hamstring and was unable to get back on defense for a crucial possession with the outcome in the balance.
As a result, it came as no surprise Friday morning when Paul was ruled out of Saturday's Game 6 back in the Bay with a hamstring strain. He'll be re-evaluated when the team returns to Houston, potentially for a deciding Game 7 of the series.
Do the Rockets need Paul to give it a go to have a realistic chance of beating Golden State? Or are they capable of winning without him?
Rockets have won with just Harden
The good news is that Houston has played -- and won -- without Paul before. He missed 14 games after suffering a knee contusion in the Rockets' season-opening win over the Warriors at Oracle Arena, and Houston went 10-4 in that stretch. The Rockets went 5-5 in the other 10 games Paul missed due to more minor injuries, most of those coming at the end of the season after the team had all but locked up the NBA's best record.
Houston has the luxury of relying on likely MVP James Harden when Paul is out of the lineup, playing a Harden-centric style similar to the one the team used in going 55-27 in 2016-17 before acquiring Paul.
Despite concerns about how the two dominant ball handlers would fit together, the Rockets were at their best during the regular season with Harden and Paul on the court together, crushing opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Advanced Stats data. But they were still awfully good with Harden alone, posting a plus-7.8 net rating similar to Golden State's plus-8.0 mark during the regular season.
In the limited sample of the playoffs, the Harden-only lineups have fared even better, outscoring opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions -- slightly better than lineups with both Hall of Fame guards.
The Warriors can expect to see even more ball screens for Harden that allow him to hunt mismatches in isolation. During the playoffs, Harden's usage rate has been a monstrous 39.3 percent of all Houston plays with Paul on the bench. (It was 38.6 percent during the regular season.)
According to Second Spectrum tracking, Harden received 70.6 picks per 100 possessions as a ball handler during the regular season when Paul was on the bench, as compared with 47.3 when they played together. That translated into 18.2 isolation plays per 100 possessions without Paul, as compared with 15.7 with him. So the load on Harden's shoulders will be heavy, similar to last postseason, when Harden got 70.8 picks per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum.
What happens when Harden rests?
So far we've focused on minutes Harden plays without Paul, ignoring the time Paul spends running the offense while Harden rests. Mike D'Antoni's aggressive staggering of his two guards has ensured that one or the other is on the court at nearly all times when both are healthy. In the postseason, the Rockets have played just 22 minutes with both Harden and Paul on the bench -- exclusively in garbage time.
The beauty of having Paul as well as Harden is that the presumptive MVP has had to log 40-plus minutes only twice in the playoffs, topping out at 43:26 in Houston's Game 4 win at Golden State. The Rockets will probably have to plan for Game 6 with the expectation that Harden will go 40-plus if the game is close.
Houston was actually surprisingly competitive during the regular season with both Harden and Paul sitting, outscoring opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions over the 331 minutes when Eric Gordon was on the court instead (a good proxy for non-garbage minutes, since Gordon nearly always played opposite Harden and Paul).
D'Antoni told reporters after Game 5 that Gordon would take over Paul's role of creator if Paul were unable to play, and indeed his usage rate swelled to a Harden-esque 37.7 percent when he played without Harden and Paul. (Overall, Gordon used just 24.9 percent of the Rockets' plays.) It's unlikely that will work as well against the Warriors as it did against weaker competition during the regular season, the whole reason D'Antoni has avoided such lineups.
There's also the matter of who actually takes over the 38 minutes or so that Paul has averaged during competitive games in the conference finals. Gordon, who already played 36 minutes in Game 5, can sop up only so much of that load. D'Antoni appears to have no choice but to extend opportunities to others, given that his rotation has contracted to just seven players the last two games.
Gerald Green, the one Houston reserve aside from Gordon who has played in every game of this series, will likely be next in line for minutes. But D'Antoni will have to either go back to Luc Mbah a Moute, an ace defender who has struggled to score since returning from a shoulder injury, or exhume veteran Joe Johnson. Johnson has played just 18 minutes since Game 2 of the first round, all in blowouts. It's safe to say D'Antoni's options are limited.
Add in Golden State's desperation to extend this series at home and the Rockets look like huge underdogs in Game 6. The Warriors are favored by an incredible 11.5 points on Saturday night (up to 12 in some places), matching their largest spread of the postseason to date (Game 5 vs. New Orleans at home, per Covers.com).
While it's unlikely any coach would ever permit such thoughts, frankly Houston would be better off saving its best effort for Game 7 back at home. Even if Paul is unable to return with two additional days' rest, home-court advantage would give the Rockets a much better chance of getting the win they need to reach the Finals.
Historically, the difference between playing Game 6 on the road and Game 7 at home has been almost a 10-point swing since the playoffs expanded to their current format in 1984. That's enough to make Golden State only small favorites in Game 7, depending on the availability of Andre Iguodala.
So it's certainly plausible for Houston to win this series without Paul, although the Warriors should be considered the favorite if he's unable to return.