The Houston Rockets will enter the 2019 offseason once again wondering what they must do to topple the Golden State Warriors. For a second straight year, their season ended at home at the hands of Stephen Curry and company, as they couldn’t quite figure out how to take down the juggernaut in a seven-game series.
The Rockets are built to try and take down the Warriors, but one has to wonder if their window is closing a bit more rapidly than they originally hoped when they paired James Harden with Chris Paul, who is beginning to show the effects of aging. Paul has battled hamstring injuries each of the last two years, including one that forced him to watch as Houston bricked its way to a Game 7 loss in 2018. He’s not getting younger and while he’s shown flashes of brilliance, it’s clear he doesn’t have the same burst or ability to get to the rim that was once there.
Beyond the question of whether Father Time will catch up with Paul before he can break through to the Finals, there’s the question of whether two straight years of losing to Golden State will take its toll on the relationship between the star guards. Harden’s iso-dominance has transformed Houston’s offense into a much more stagnant system than what Mike D’Antoni has run in the past — and what Paul has been most comfortable in during his career. They’ve adapted to what works best for Harden and, as such, the team, but after two straight playoff exits a reckoning may be coming in the form of push back from Paul.
According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the Rockets starting backcourt got into it a bit about “ball distribution” after the Game 6 loss in the locker room.
But Harden and Paul had tense moments with one another throughout Game 6, culminating in a verbal back-and-forth postgame that went into the locker room, sources with knowledge of the situation told The Athletic. Sources said the verbal exchange between Harden and Paul was regarding the ball distribution throughout Game 6. By the time the remainder of the locker room was ready to talk, Paul and Harden had gone their separate ways, with Paul swiftly making his way to the postgame podium. The Rockets dispensed with exit interviews this year, so the media hasn’t been able to ask Paul or Harden about the disappointment.
This could end up simply being the frustrations of the moment coming out, which would be understandable, but one has to wonder if this is something that’s been simmering just under the surface for Paul. There were many who wondered when he was dealt to Houston how well he would fit with Harden, not just in basketball terms, but in their philosophical approach to the game. Through two seasons, it’s worked quite well but as the disappointments in the final results stack up, the desire to make tweaks may cross the mind of Paul — and not of Harden.
As Charania notes, neither have commented on it because neither have been made available since. By the time they are, both will likely shrug it off as the heat of the moment and that it’s nothing going into next season, but it will be worth monitoring going forward. The Warriors issue, to an extent, might get taken care of on its own with free agency, but even a departing Durant doesn’t mean they’ll become a walkover. Should the two sides meet for a third straight year and the Rockets fall behind, we’ll have to watch to see if Paul becomes frustrated with their style of play.