By Kristie Rieken
HOUSTON (AP) — Chris Paul is an ultra-intense competitor, often the most passionate player on the court.
But even for his Houston Rockets teammates, what they saw from him Tuesday night was on another level.
Paul scored a playoff career-high 41 points with eight 3-pointers to finally reach the conference finals, helping the Rockets eliminate the Utah Jazz 112-102 in Game 5.
“He said you get out of the way … I’m going to put us on my back,” James Harden said. “You could see it in his eyes. He had that look in his eyes. If he has that look in his eyes … he’s a problem.”
The Rockets will meet Golden State after the Warriors closed out their series against the New Orleans Pelicans later Tuesday night. Top-seeded Houston will host the series opener Monday night.
It will be Houston’s second trip to the Western Conference finals in four years and the first ever for Paul. The point guard has been panned for failing to get past the second round in his nine previous trips to the postseason.
“He’s been under a lot of unfair scrutiny throughout the playoffs and tonight he showed that he wanted it,” Utah star rookie Donovan Mitchell, who is close with Paul, said. “He does it every night, but taking over the way he did was very impressive.”
Paul, a nine-time All-Star in his first season with Houston after an offseason trade from the Los Angeles Clippers, also had 10 assists and seven rebounds. His previous career-best in the playoffs was 35 points, which he accomplished three times
The 33-year-old scored 20 points in the fourth quarter, answering everything the Jazz tried to do in order to close out the game and series.
“He was playing with a chip on his shoulder,” Luc Mbah a Moute said. “In that fourth quarter, he just took over.”
Paul had been in the conference semifinals four other times before finally getting over the hump this season. He lost to the Spurs 4-3 in 2008 while with New Orleans and was swept by San Antonio in 2012 with the Clippers. He also lost 4-2 to the Thunder while with Los Angeles, and his Clippers had a 3-1 lead in 2015 before Houston won the next three games.
The Rockets were able to close out the series despite Harden, the front-runner for MVP, being under the weather. Coach Mike D’Antoni disclosed that Harden wasn’t feeling well Tuesday, and he looked a little worn down postgame. But when asked what was wrong with him, Harden said he was fine.
Paul said he was just trying to pick up the slack with Harden not feeling like himself.
“Whatever it took to win,” Paul said. “James was under the weather so we were just trying to pick him up.”
Houston lost to the Warriors 4-1 when they last reached the conference finals in 2015. They believe they’re much better suited to match up with Golden State this time around, but know it won’t be easy to dethrone the defending champions.
“They’ve been built to beat everybody,” general manager Daryl Morey said. “They’re going to be a tough matchup. We’ll have to bring our A-plus game and I think our guys are ready.”
While the Rockets took a minute Tuesday night to appreciate what they’ve done so far, they were quick to point out that they’re far from finished chasing their goals this season.
“We just advanced in another series which is an accomplishment, but that’s not our main goal,” Trevor Ariza said. “We are still taking steps toward that, but this is an accomplishment.”
Houston is in the conference finals for the seventh time in franchise history and looking to win its first title since taking back-to-back championships in 1994-95.
Harden loves that he has so many players around him that have led to the team’s success this season and thinks that will be valuable moving forward.
“In order to get where we want to go we needed the right piece, and that’s what they’re here for,” he said. “I know if we give the effort that we know we can it’s pretty tough to beat us.”
(© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)