HOUSTON — Stephen Curry isn’t used to being mocked. Not with his own signature move, and certainly not in his face. But Chris Paul — tired of being on the wrong end of Curry memes, tired of seeing Curry shimmy like an extra in an old P. Diddy video — gave the two-time MVP a dose of his own medicine Thursday night after drilling his most ridiculous shot in a second half filled with them. Curry could only laugh as Paul ran up to him and shook his shoulders, glaring the entire way with a facial expression that said, “We ain’t going nowhere.”
CHRIS PAUL WITH THE THREE AND SHIMMY RIGHT IN CURRY’S FACE pic.twitter.com/KHsc7L8Gk6
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) May 25, 2018
The Kevin Durant-infused Golden State Warriors aren’t accustomed to getting clocked. Not when they have talented players with so much skill, and certainly not two times in a row. But the Houston Rockets, the team GM Daryl Morey diabolically constructed with the sole purpose of dethroning a potential dynasty before it actually unfolded, is turning this series into a dogfight. They are also turning the Warriors into something shocking: a discombobulated squad that looks unconfident, unorganized and undisciplined in the clutch; a team that stands one loss from an earlier-than-expected exit from this postseason.
“Everybody in that locker room has had their backs against the wall, plenty of times,” Durant told Yahoo Sports after the Rockets beat the Warriors 98-94 Thursday night. “I think we can lean on those experiences to get us better. We’ve all been in these situations before. We just got to embrace it.”
That the Rockets have a 3-2 Western Conference finals lead over the defending champions is a credit to the foundation that has been established ever since Morey traded almost half of last year’s team to get Paul, whose competitiveness, toughness and occasional line-crossing nastiness have permeated through the organization. Paul had to wait 13 years to finally reach the conference finals, sacrificing a mega-millions lottery ticket to leave the Los Angeles Clippers, and has been everything and more for the franchise. But the Rockets’ confetti-celebrated victory was tempered by Paul’s inability to finish the game after he limped off the court in the final minute with a right hamstring injury that puts his status for the rest of this series — and especially Game 6 — in doubt.
“His spirits aren’t great,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Paul. “For sure he’s worried and all that. That’s normal.”
From the time their relationship transitioned from one of mentor-pupil to that of rivals, Paul has been the one who nearly got shook to the floor after Curry crossed him up along the baseline, the one who watched the Warriors shut down the Clippers’ window while winning two rings. But now, after serving up a cold dish of revenge, Paul might not be able to finish or might have to play diminished. That would be a cruel end for an all-time great who has never been closer to playing for a championship.
In addition to running the team the way he always has in his Hall of Fame-caliber career, Paul has helped James Harden likely capture his first MVP while relieving him of the burden of authoring a transcendent performance every game. Harden had the kind of shooting night from long distance that hadn’t been seen in the postseason since John Starks was clanking away the New York Knicks’ chance at a title in 1994. But Paul had the circus shots, and the Rockets got enough timely buckets from Eric Gordon to make Harden’s clunker an afterthought. Before Paul came up lame, his shimmy in the face of Curry was the ultimate expression of defiance and arrogance. Curry couldn’t even be mad afterward.
“It was well deserved,” Curry said. “If you can shimmy on somebody else, you’ve got to be all right getting shimmied on. So I’ll keep shimmying, and maybe he will too, so we’ll see what happens.”
Curry and the Warriors don’t get “shimmied on,” but the Rockets have earned the right to gloat a little. The series hasn’t been won, but the respect certainly has. Houston has been the threat it always claimed to be. The Rockets have out-uglied the Warriors, showing a grimier side that has resulted in greater composure when it’s time to get shots and stops. Durant has mostly been a 7-foot cheat code since his arrival in Oakland, but the Rockets have forced him into so much isolation that he’s practically on his own deserted island, trying to take advantage of alleged mismatches to the detriment of the Warriors’ vaunted ball movement. Warriors coach Steve Kerr was captured on TNT sharing a story of Michael Jordan’s evolution to hammer home the importance of Durant needing to trust his teammates.
The Warriors added Durant to plug any holes that were exposed during their meltdown against Cleveland in the 2016 Finals. But this playoff run has been a reminder of the fragility of a title chase. The Warriors aren’t whole because of the injury to Andre Iguodala, whose ability to draw the team together on a string has been absent in the past two losses. Though they’ve never had to deal with this kind of adversity and strife with Durant, Kerr appeared calm and optimistic about what’s next — with or without a healthy Paul around. “I feel great about where we are right now,” Kerr said. “That may sound crazy, but I feel it.”
The two most dynamic forces of the past four seasons — LeBron James and the Warriors — are both on the brink of elimination, putting in jeopardy the ratings bonanza of an unprecedented fourth straight Finals meeting. But Kerr and his crew didn’t seem worried that they won’t be able to complete the task. Despite fumbling away chances to win the past two games, players spoke confidently among themselves about believing that they’ve figured out what needs to be done to beat Houston in the next two games. Iguodala is expected to return from his bone bruise Saturday, which should keep Kerr from having to search for lineups that work. Klay Thompson declared that the team was coming back to Houston for Game 7.
And Paul’s injury — disappointing as it would be should it prove to be severe — could provide yet another opening for the Warriors. Golden State was unchallenged in its first season with Durant, winning a title with so much ease that it raised concerns about league-wide competitive balance going forward — concerns that Paul and the Rockets could erase with one more win, and perhaps, one more in-your-face shimmy. The Warriors can’t ruin the league if Houston first ruins them.
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