Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors

Game 7 loss leaves Rockets wondering what could have been

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Rockets guard James Harden (Getty Images)

It was all right there in front of them. With a 98-94 victory in Game 5 on Thursday, the Rockets captured a 3-2 lead over the defending champs in the Western Conference finals. The Warriors were vulnerable, on the brink of elimination for the first time since adding Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016.

Then, it all disappeared. The Warriors used one of their patented third-quarter explosions to run over the Rockets on Monday night, winning Game 7 and finally removing Mike D'Antoni's team from their path to the NBA title. Golden State deserves credit for fighting off Houston, and yet, it felt like this series came down to what could have been for the Rockets more than what did happen for the Warriors.

Heading into the offseason after a disappointing finish, the Rockets are left with a few "what if" questions to ponder...

What if Chris Paul didn't go down with an injury?

This is the big one. Paul fell awkwardly late in Game 5 with a strained right hamstring and was physically unable to transition back to defense. That's the reason why Draymond Green still felt confident the Warriors would return to the NBA Finals despite the 3-2 deficit - the loss of Paul in the final two games of the series was simply too much to overcome.

Rockets with Paul vs. Warriors Off Rtg Def Rtg Asst/TO TS %
Paul ON (184 minutes) 102.2 110.6 1.20 55.0
Paul OFF (152 minutes) 98.0 113.4 0.91 51.3

"It sucks because you know you could win this series if we just had one more playmaker," Rockets guard Eric Gordon said after the Game 7 loss. "If we had Chris, if he was out there, we'd have been playing on Thursday [in Game 1 of the NBA Finals]. It's just tough."

Paul is an All-NBA performer whose poise and production can't be replicated, especially not against this opponent. James Harden couldn't handle the offensive burden without Paul, and talent eventually won out.

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Sure Not Now

What if the Rockets hit a few more 3-pointers - or any 3-pointers?

The Rockets' shooting woes are tied to Paul's absence, as the veteran likely would have been able to settle down the offense with his own scoring and mix in a few midrange jumpers to add some variation. Even so, Houston missed an NBA playoff record 27 3-point attempts in a row (several of them wide open), finishing 7-of-44 (15.9 percent) from beyond the arc in Game 7.

Over the course of that 0-for-27 drought, the Warriors outscored the Rockets, 59-34, and went 13-of-23 from 3-point range. Houston missed from the top of the key, wings and corners with players like Harden (2-of-13), Gordon (2-of-12) and Trevor Ariza (0-of-9) all clanking makeable shots. Just bring those percentages up from awful to below average, and it's not hard to envision a close fourth quarter.

What are the odds of a trigger-happy team like the Rockets missing that many shots? According to calculations done by FiveThirtyEight's Chris Herring, 1-in-72,000.

What if this was the Rockets' best shot at a title?

It's possible the Rockets come back from this devastating loss and reach the Western Conference finals next season. General manager Daryl Morey could make minor tweaks or chase a big free agent to improve the roster. If nothing else, Houston proved Golden State is beatable.

But championship windows can close quickly. D'Antoni knows this better than most - his "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns never broke through to the NBA Finals.

Paul just turned 33 this month, and injuries can add up for a player at his size. Harden did all he could given his workload, but questions remain about his decision-making and ability to lead a team in key moments. Role players could see regressions.

The Rockets had the Warriors on the ropes, but they couldn't land a knockout blow. There are no guarantees they find their way back into the ring.

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