"We've got to figure it out," said Rockets guard James Harden, the league's reigning MVP. "Injuries happen." Paul was injured in the second quarter on Thursday night in a loss to Miami. Seeing Paul grab at the back of his leg surely conjured up bad reminders of his right hamstring strain late last season, the injury that knocked him out of Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors won both of those games to erase the Rockets' 3-2 lead in the series, and went on to sweep Cleveland for the title.
The Rockets are 0-5 without Paul this season, and have dropped nine straight when he doesn't play going back to last season. Including playoffs, the Rockets are 77-22 when Paul plays. "I've had hamstring issues before and I know how frustrating they are," said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, one of Paul's closest friends in the league. "And especially an injury like that ... last year you could say it cost them a championship not having him out there with the hamstring. It's hard, but I just want him to stay positive. It's a small hurdle again and you get over it, but it starts mentally first. Physically, I know he will do the work."
The injury comes with the Rockets starting to turn things around. Houston had won five in a row before the loss in Miami, but is eighth in the Western Conference at 16-15. Paul is averaging 15.6 points, 8.0 assists and 2.1 steals this season for the Rockets, who host San Antonio on Saturday.
His latest injury came on a relatively innocuous-looking play. Paul dribbled behind his back near midcourt while cutting right, and the ball got knocked away by Miami's Derrick Jones Jr. That was the moment where Paul grabbed the back of his left leg. He went directly to the Houston locker room, never returned, and was dressed and gone before the room opened postgame.
"It's definitely tough because he's a big-time playmaker and ball handler for us," Rockets guard Eric Gordon said. "In this offense you need all of the playmaking that you can have and usually me, Chris, and James have the ball in our hands trying to play-make for other people and provide good scoring."
Paul is 33, and not even half a season into a four-year, $159.7 million contract that he signed with Houston back in July. He was struggling with his shot of late — connecting on 34 percent of his tries in his most recent five games entering the matchup in Miami — but was still a big factor in Houston being able to match a season high with five straight wins.
The Rockets were winning by eight in Miami when he got hurt, and got outscored by 10 the rest of the way. And the combined winning percentage of their next nine opponents is .601 — so being without Paul for a while would obviously make this looming stretch even more daunting for a Rockets team that has been decidedly up and down this season.
They lost only 17 regular-season games last season. They've nearly matched that already, and entering Friday they were tied for merely the eighth-best record in the jammed Western Conference. The Rockets were two games out of fourth and two games out of 14th.
"It's definitely going to be tough," Gordon said of the prospect of being without Paul for a while again. "But we've just got to make adjustments and play even better."
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