Going into the final day of the regular season, the Houston Rockets did not know if they would finish the night as the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference or vault all the way to No. 2.
A chorus of onlookers insisted that finding a way to stay at No. 4, even if it involved intentionally losing, would be Houston’s best bet at dethroning its chief rival, the Golden State Warriors. A No. 4 seed, the reasoning went, would line the Rockets up to face the Warriors in the second round, rather than in the conference finals, thus reducing the fatigue that the team’s overworked superstar, James Harden, would accrue before the grueling matchup, while also increasing the likelihood that its fragile and aging leader, Chris Paul, would remain healthy for the showdown.
For the up-and-comers to be concerned about age, fatigue and injury, rather than the two-time defending champions, seemed fairly backward.
But now Houston, which did end up with the fourth seed, is indeed looking fully healthy in the second round and giving the Warriors a fight for their lives.
And durability has become Golden State’s concern instead, as its star forward Kevin Durant, who has somehow been even more dominant in these playoffs than in previous years, sustained a calf injury in Game 5 on Wednesday that is expected to keep him out for the remainder of the series, if not longer.
The quest for a fourth championship in five seasons, and a rare three-peat, will be dramatically tested by how quickly Golden State’s coaches and players can adjust. They will enter Friday’s Game 6 with a three-games-to-two advantage in the series, but also with Houston’s home crowd in their ears.
The results could shine a light on some critical decisions made by Coach Steve Kerr over the last few seasons about his players’ so-called load management, a concept he embraced before the phrase was popularized, and one he stuck with even as the league cracked down on the resting of healthy players during regular-season games.
In the first test of life without Durant — the final 14 minutes of Wednesday’s win — Golden State initially struggled, but turned things on in the fourth quarter, with the dynasty’s original core — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — fighting its way to a 104-99 victory. The resurgence inspired Kerr to invoke the words of Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp, who a day before had described his players as “giants,” modifying that description with an adjective that is unsuitable for publication.
“I know how he feels,” Kerr said of Klopp, borrowing the unsuitable word to describe his own group of giants. “That was an unbelievable victory tonight.”
To beat the Rockets in Houston on Friday, though, or to win at home in a potential Game 7 on Sunday, will require a sudden adjustment of strategy for a team that has increasingly relied on Durant’s ability to take over games. The seeds of a dynasty were there, of course, when Durant arrived for the 2016-17 season, but the team’s core was younger and supported by a far deeper bench in the two previous seasons, when Kerr took charge and guided the franchise to two league finals and its first title in 40 years.
Kerr has seemed keenly aware of the changing demands on his team. He got a strong lesson in the importance of rest during the 2015-16 season, when his team gave everything it had to set a regular-season record with 73 wins only to run out of steam as a fresher, hungrier Cleveland Cavaliers team stormed to a championship by erasing a 3-1 deficit in the finals.
Even Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s commissioner, who has been strongly against resting healthy players, acknowledged the value of rest on Thursday, saying the league may need to rethink its 82-game regular season.
“Maybe it’s too many games on the player’s bodies,” he said.
To that end, Kerr has worked the last few years to limit his players’ minutes in the regular season, and as a result, the disparity in workload over the last five years between the Rockets and Warriors is probably not as wide as some would expect, especially if you consider that the Warriors have played 94 playoff games over the last five seasons compared with the Rockets’ 60.
Each team employs a core seven-man rotation, with a rotating cast of characters at the eight spot. Both teams rely on several players in their 30s — the Rockets actually have two of the series’ three oldest regulars, P.J. Tucker and Paul, who are 34, a year younger than the senior player in the series, the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala.
Golden State’s seven-player core has amassed a total (regular season and playoffs combined) of 82,994 minutes over the last five seasons, while Houston’s seven — of which no one but Iman Shumpert has advanced beyond the conference finals in those years — has 80,828.
That leaves an average of just 62 extra minutes per player per season, or around two games worth of action for a typical starter.
The difference is that Houston has asked its players to shoulder a far larger burden in the regular season. Harden leads all players in the series with 14,471 regular season minutes over those five seasons — 1,543 more than Thompson, Golden State’s most used player. In aggregate, the Rockets’ core has logged 5,028 more minutes in the last five regular seasons, while Golden State’s core has a 7,194-minute lead in playoff usage.
The imbalance is even greater among the starters, with Golden State’s starting five — including Durant — nearly doubling their Houston counterparts in playoff minutes.
That emphasis on the playoffs above all else is nowhere more apparent than with Green, the Warriors’ smallball center, who seemingly embraced the methods of Shaquille O’Neal by using the regular season as an extended training camp before getting into serious shape for the playoffs.
At the urging of Golden State’s general manager, Bob Myers, Green lost 23 pounds over a period of six weeks at the end of the season, and he has appeared more spry than at any other point in recent years. When assessing his play in Wednesday’s win, the 29-year-old Green made no attempt to hide the fact that he had considered the regular season a warm-up.
“I know I’m paid to play this way during the playoffs,” he said. “My teammates expect me to play this way during the playoffs.”
What remains to be seen, though, is how much it took out of Golden State to pull off Wednesday’s win. Houston’s expected advantages in getting to matchup earlier than last year have largely panned out, with Paul remaining healthy and Harden closing games strong — though it is worth noting that Harden wore down considerably in the fourth quarter on Wednesday. Now the Rockets have a real shot at knocking out the league’s dominant team as it reshuffles its rotation and gives more minutes to players like Kevon Looney and Jonas Jerebko, who are far less battle-tested than the team’s stars.
Much of the pressure to close out the series will fall on Curry, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award in the two seasons before Durant arrived. A return to the center of Golden State’s offense has been long awaited from a group of Curry’s fans. Spurred on by the podcast “Light Years,” they have popularized the phrase “#stephbetter” on Twitter to insist that Curry’s sharpshooting, and the attention it draws from defenses, is among the game’s greatest forces, and many believe it powers Golden State’s dominance in a bigger way than Durant’s mastery of all the game’s skills.
Curry’s most ardent fans have been steadfast in their belief that Golden State can overcome its heavy reliance on Durant, which is dramatically apparent in a comparison of the team’s statistics with him on the court versus off it in this postseason, by simply unlocking the potential of its star point guard.
But with Curry’s shot turning precarious of late while Houston looked capable of an upset even before Durant’s injury, Golden State is as vulnerable as it has been at any point in the last three years. So the Warriors will have to hope that Curry’s gravity, in conjunction with Kerr’s workload strategy, is enough to allow them to survive.
If not, a season that at times felt like a foregone conclusion could be as wide open heading into the conference finals as any year since at least 2006, if not the late 1970s. And Houston, having “failed” to improve to No. 2 in the West on the regular season’s final day, would be poised to take advantage of that power vacuum.