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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Golden State Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Finals

# 2 Golden State (58-24) vs. #1 Houston (65-17)

Season series: Houston, 2-1

Houston can win if…Chris Paul picks up the slack when James Harden drops off (assuming that Paul does not wear down, as he often does during the postseason), if Clint Capela dominates the paint as he did during the first two rounds and if Houston's deep roster continues to play well collectively (even if individual players struggle in one game or another).

James Harden is the presumptive 2017-18 NBA regular season MVP. He deserved a lot of credit for Houston's league-leading 65-17 record and he is receiving a lot of credit for Houston's playoff run to this point but the funny thing is that he is not performing at a higher level than he did in previous years when the Rockets flamed out during the postseason; the difference is that now Harden has a better supporting cast, headlined by Paul (who at times--particularly during the playoffs--looks like the team's best player and not Robin to Harden's Batman).

During the first two rounds of the 2018 playoffs, Harden averaged 28.5 ppg while shooting .407 from the field. In Harden's five previous playoff appearances with the Rockets (during only one of which the Rockets reached the Western Conference Finals), Harden averaged between 26.3 ppg and 28.5 ppg while shooting between .376 and .439 from the field. He has always been a high variance player, capable of dropping 40-plus points one night and then disappearing the next night, which is why his averages are deceiving--a player who consistently scores at least 20 points but is capable of erupting for 40 is more valuable than a player who averages 26-28 ppg by scoring 45 points one game and seven points the next.

Harden's playoff numbers for rebounds and assists have also not changed significantly over the past several years; to his credit, he has shaved his turnovers to 3.1 tpg--which would be his best postseason mark as a Rocket--but that clearly has a lot to do with Paul taking over a significant percentage of the ballhandling and playmaking duties.

Harden has a history of disappearing at key moments. Hall of Famer and six-time NBA champion Scottie Pippen recently described how he would guard Harden and after making several strategic points Pippen concluded with the most important thing to know about defending Harden: if you take Harden out of his comfort zone, he'll quit. We have seen that happen in almost every playoff run of Harden's career. So far, the Rockets have not faced sufficient resistance to take Harden out of his comfort zone but that figures to change during this series.

Meanwhile, Paul has been the steadiest Rocket during the playoffs and he was sensational during the game five series clincher versus Utah, erupting for 41 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and no turnovers while shooting 13-22 from the field, including 8-10 from three point range (Harden shot 7-22 from the field and scored 18 points). Paul is scoring 21.8 ppg during the playoffs while shooting .485 from the field, .377 from three point range and .879 on free throws. He is averaging 6.4 apg and just 1.9 tpg while also ranking second on the team in rebounding (5.5 rpg). Paul is an undersized but very talented and feisty two-way player. His competitiveness and defensive intensity have had a tangible effect on the Rockets, who were severely lacking in both areas prior to this season. I did not think that Harden and Paul would have good chemistry based on their divergent personalities and skill sets but--to this point--they have proven me wrong.

Clint Capela has emerged as an All-Star caliber big man and he has played a major role in Houston's success. He is averaging 14.4 ppg on .634 field goal shooting during the playoffs while leading the Rockets in rebounding (12.2 rpg) and blocked shots (2.8 bpg). Capela outplayed Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round and he outplayed Utah's Rudy Gobert in the second round.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon have not shot well during the playoffs but both players have not only had some good moments offensively but they have also performed well defensively. Those two plus P.J. Tucker provide some much needed toughness, particularly since the Rockets tend to play small lineups that require their wings and guards to match up with bigger players.

Golden State will win because…the Warriors are at full strength with Stephen Curry back in the lineup and because Kevin Durant--not Curry or Harden or Paul--will prove to be the best player on the court during this series.

Curry sat out the final 10 games of the regular season and Golden State's first six playoff games due to an MCL sprain in his left knee but he hardly missed a beat after returning to action in the second round, averaging 24.5 ppg in 31.3 mpg in four games versus the New Orleans Pelicans. The Warriors are a very good team even without Curry but they have shown glimpses of dominance again with Curry back in the fold; they won during Curry's first game back as he came off of the bench, they lost on the road to a New Orleans team determined not to be swept and then they closed out the series with victories by 26 and nine points. Curry has started the last three games and looks bouncier/more confident in each outing.

Durant is having another excellent playoff run, leading the Warriors in scoring (28.0 ppg) while ranking second in rebounding (8.0 rpg), assists (5.0 apg) and blocked shots (1.0 bpg). He is shooting .493 from the field and .891 from the free throw line; the only slight chink in his armor is subpar three point shooting during this postseason (.279). Whatever one may think of his decision to leave a perennial contender to join forces with a super team, Durant has lived up to his end of the bargain for the Warriors in terms of his on court performance.

Klay Thompson was the Warriors' second leading playoff scorer (21.2 ppg) while Curry was out. He is a top notch defensive player as well.

Draymond Green has showcased his usual all-around effectiveness (13.1 ppg, team-high 11.5 rpg, team-high 9.0 apg, team-high 1.9 spg (Curry is averaging 2.0 spg but he has only played four games) and a team-high 1.3 bpg while managing to avoid being ejected or suspended. He is not shooting well (.423 FG%) but the Warriors do not need him to be a knock down shooter.

Andre Iguodala joined the starting lineup while Curry was out and he has started nine of the Warriors' 10 playoff games as Steve Kerr has shuffled the rotation due various matchup considerations. Iguodala is averaging 7.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 3.5 apg.

Comparisons are often made between the Warriors and either Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix teams or D'Antoni's current Houston team but those comparisons are not very apt. The Warriors' success is not merely based on a high octane offense powered by shooting three pointers. The Warriors have a very fluid offense based on passing, cutting and taking advantage of the well-rounded skill sets of multiple players--and, just as significantly, the Warriors play tenacious team defense. Neither D'Antoni's Suns nor his Rockets were this complete offensively or this effective defensively. Houston's offense this season is primarily based on isolating either Harden and Paul; it hardly resembles the Warriors' free-floating offense at all, other than in the superficial sense that both teams score a lot of points.

The Rockets are a talented team that can be difficult to contain when multiple players get hot, but it will be a tough task to take four playoff games from the Warriors playing this way. Relying on isolation and shooting dozens of three pointers is a very high variance strategy. The Rockets could very possibly blow out the Warriors by 20 points in one game this series and still not even push the series to seven games.

Other things to consider: The Rockets have openly stated that they are built specifically to beat the Warriors. That is the contention of team architect Daryl Morey and that confidence is shared by the coaching staff and the players. The Rockets outperformed the Warriors during the regular season--both overall and in the head to head matchup--but none of that matters or will be remembered if the Warriors win this series. I have never been one to overstate the importance of one playoff run, one playoff series or one playoff game. The Rockets could lose this series and then win the championship next year. Overreaction and recency bias are two of the worst traits exhibited by far too many people who cover this great sport. However, with all of that being said, there is no doubt that this is an important playoff series and to some extent it is a referendum on Morey's vision--both on how to build a team overall and specifically on whether or not Harden can be the centerpiece of a championship team.

The Warriors have already carved out a place for themselves in pro basketball history based on their accomplishments during the past few seasons. Losing to them is not a basketball sin--but it is also not a vindication of Morey's openly held belief that he has masterminded a basketball philosophy and roster that can topple Golden State.

The Rockets are healthy and they have home court advantage, so--assuming that they remain healthy--they have no excuses if they lose.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:35 PM



At Saturday, May 12, 2018 12:54:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

This series would be a slam dunk for GSW if Curry were definitely 100%, but he does not look quite right to me yet. It reminds me of 2016, where Curry was a bit hobbled/struggled with conditioning and the Warriors found themselves down 3-1 to OKC and ultimately lost to Cleveland.

Still, even with a diminished Curry, GSW has Durant, Thompson, and Green, all of whom have credible cases for being better playoff basketball players than Harden, depending on what you value.

Houston is about as well set up to try and defend GSW as any team with James Harden on it can be. I expect the Warriors to target him relentlessly.

I love Mike D'Antoni like the drunken cowboy uncle I never had, but he does not usually coach well from behind in playoff series, and his adjustments tend to come either too soon or too late a lot of the time; he probably needs to win Game 1 to have a real shot.

I think Curry is better than Paul but I think Paul will outplay Curry in this series; Curry looks to me to be about 85% of his usual self; Paul is probably a match for anything less than 95%.

Durant will need to resist the temptation to get into an iso-off with Houston. It is not that he can't play that way-- he can, as well as almost anybody--but Houston is built to play that way and GSW is not; anything that gets GSW away from their proven and preferred offense is a net win for Houston.

I would not be surprised if the best player in the series is Paul, but I would be surprised if Houston won.

Warriors in 6. If I'm wrong and Curry is fully healthy (or at least closer to it), it might just be a sweep.

PS: I disagree that D'Antoni's Suns weren't similarly complete/potent offensively to this Warriors team, but I agree that there's a sizeable gap on defense.

At Tuesday, May 15, 2018 7:35:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Watching last night's game a couple things stand out: James Harden dropped nearly 30 points in the first half but noticeably started to tire out as the second half progressed because the Warriors were making him work for every shot. So not only does his offensive output slowly decline but his defensive ability steadily drops from passable at the beginning of the game to a defensive sieve by the end, negating much of what he offers you on offense anyway. Klay and Durant attacked him regularly and feasted on him in the second half. His lack of stamina might be his biggest issue.

When they benched him in the late third and early fourth quarter, the Rockets cut the lead to five.

The fact that Chris Paul is able to relieve Harden and provide a consistent secondary playmaker and a more solid defensive lineup in the late game in order to hold leads helps explain why the Rockets have had so much success this season. Paul is more consistent than Harden but much less explosive and I'm not sure if he will be able to consistently provide enough against the Warriors.

At Wednesday, May 16, 2018 10:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, it's truly mind-boggling in here the negativity Harden gets even when he has a phenomenal game. Paul is an AS-caliber PG. Obviously, he'd help any team. And HOU performed much worse with Harden off the court than on, overall.

Keith, it's interesting you point Harden has another teammate who's a playmaker when GS has no less than 4 solid playmakers.

At Wednesday, May 16, 2018 9:39:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...


Harden had an incredible first half. I don't necessarily mean to detract from that. But he noticeably became fatigued in the third quarter and past that. He is going to either need to pace himself better or Chris Paul will have to step up better in the late game. I agree is GSW is very talented and it allows them to roll with the punches so to speak. But that makes it all the more important to not exhaust yourself in the early goings of the game.

At Thursday, May 17, 2018 12:54:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

That game was all three of the things I was most worried about for GSW:

1) Curry is clearly not 100%; he's missing some lift on his jumper, and his lateral quickness isn't all the way back yet, either.

2) GSW in general, and Durant in particular, are getting suckered into playing Iso-ball against Houston, which is not their game and tends to cool off their shooters. Durant had monster individual numbers but played into Houston's hands by abandoning GSW's usual offense in favor of Iso-ball, and it's in this case no coincidence that he had the worst +/- of all their starters.

3) Houston's role players made their shots.

That's a tough combo for GSW to overcome; any night where two of those are true is a coin flip, but they can't win when it's all three.

At Thursday, May 17, 2018 2:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Houston is a high variance team and Harden is a high variance player. It does not surprise me that Houston notched a blowout win during the series. I expect Golden State to lead 3-1 when the series returns to Houston.

At Monday, May 21, 2018 9:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

It is a good thing that the Rockets were specifically designed to beat Golden State, that Harden is a "foundational player" and that Chris Paul is better than Isiah Thomas. Otherwise, Houston would have lost by 60 or more last night, right?

Seriously, has there ever been a top seeded, 65 win team that had no health or suspension issues and looked worse in a playoff game--let alone a Conference Finals game--than Houston did?

Anyone who thinks that I am too tough on the Rockets, Harden, Paul or D'Antoni needs to watch that game tape very carefully.

Some media "experts" talked before the game about Houston "hunting" Curry. It sure looked like the Warriors "hunted"--and captured--Harden repeatedly last night.

Is Harden a talented scorer who puts up very good regular season numbers? Absolutely. Does Harden have the skill set and mentality to lead a team to an NBA championship. Absolutely not.

Last night, when he was at best the third or fourth best player on the court, Harden looked a lot like a guy who would be well-suited to being the third best player on a contending team. Oh, wait, he had that opportunity before he decided that he did not want to stay in OKC.

I know that he is laughing all the way to the bank with over $200 million and that he could not care less what I think--and I also know that he most likely will end up with the same number of NBA championship rings that I own.

At Monday, May 21, 2018 10:43:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...


I mostly agree with everything you wrote, but I would make two Devil's Advocate arguments:

1) There may eventually be a case for taking Paul over Thomas, but it'll be a case built almost entirely on longevity. Paul is currently in his 13th season and still very good; Thomas played only 13 years. If Paul can stay relevant for another five or six years (not a given), then I could see an argument in his favor (I have Stockton a micrometer ahead of Thomas historically largely on the same logic; I'd rather have ten years of Thomas than ten years of Stockton, but I'd rather have 19 years of Stockton than 13 years of Thomas).

That said, Thomas' best game, series, or year pretty easily trumps Paul's, IMO.

2) I think Harden is probably good enough to be the second best guy on a title team, presuming that the best guy is a Kareem/Duncan/Hakeem/Wilt-level super-big who can not only take over the game on offense when Harden doesn't have it but can also clean up after him on defense. Failing that, though, I agree he's more suited to being the third-best guy on a title team.

At Monday, May 21, 2018 2:11:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

Every time Harden drove to the basket last night I kept hearing the theme music from The Benny Hill Show in my head. I expect Harden to play better in game four and five but he can look so lost and reckless in playoff games, as you have tirelessly pointed out for at least five years. I also cannot fathom why he is allowed to do that painfully self-indulgent iso-ball at the top of the key. His teammates look visibly annoyed when he does this and it wastes an absurd amount of the shot clock.

At Tuesday, May 22, 2018 6:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Once a player makes it to at least the 10 year mark or so while playing at a high level most or all of that time, peak value matters more to me than pure longevity. I am not sure that Paul could realistically do anything to move ahead of Thomas in my book even if Paul plays several more years (he "could" win several championships as the best or second best player but that is not realistic in my opinion).

Yeah, Harden could probably be the second best player on a championship team but I just find it amusing to watch him be at best the third or fourth best player on the court and realize that if he had been willing to stay in OKC as the third option then he probably would already have at least one ring.

It is baffling to me that Westbrook gets so much grief for OKC losing to a superior Utah team but Houston's playoff stumbling in two of the past three games despite having the number one seed is apparently not Harden's fault at all.

At Tuesday, May 22, 2018 6:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The way that Harden plays is ugly to watch even when it "works" during the regular season and it will likely never work on a consistent basis past the first round of the NBA playoffs.

It is amazing that the media will kill Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook for supposedly being selfish/shooting too much but somehow it is OK for Harden to monopolize the ball for 20 seconds on the shot clock before either flailing his body in the hope of getting a foul called or else passing the ball as a last resort so one of his teammates is forced to shoot a low percentage shot or turn the ball over. The Harden mythology started back in OKC when some media members claimed that he was the team's true playmaker--not Westbrook--and it continues to this day.

When Harden completely breaks down in this series with one of his classic 5-20 shooting performances mixed with 10 turnovers and horrific defense, it will be interesting to see how his media supporters find a way to justify him spearheading a series loss by a healthy 65 win team.

At Tuesday, May 22, 2018 8:53:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...


As I said, it's a Devil's Advocate argument. I think I value longevity slightly more than you do (I suspect you would take Isiah Thomas over Stockton, but while I agree that Thomas was better while he played I think I'd rather have the six extra years of Stockton), but I don't anticipate Paul playing well enough for long enough to move ahead of Zeke in my personal rankings.

I agree with you about Harden, mostly, although at this point I go back and forth on whether or not RWB is meaningfully better; both players seem to struggle to get the most out of their teammates and neither is a good defender. RWB does more things well (and is, in a vacuum, a less catastrophic defender though Harden's system is smarter about hiding him), but Harden is a much more efficient scorer.

At Tuesday, May 22, 2018 6:15:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

It's so fitting that Harden and Paul are on the same team. They are two of the most apologized for players in the history of the league and the mental gymnastics used to justify their repeated playoff shortcomings are astounding. Both players are coming off of six straight playoff meltdowns (2012-2017) and they have gotten a fraction of the criticism that Kobe Bryant received when he was actually winning Finals MVPs. They are or were supposedly just as good or even better than Bryant yet at the same time they are inexplicably held to an infinitely lower standard than Bryant ever was.

The Harden-hype is especially troublesome because of how many qualified, respectable analysts seem to be incapable of acknowledging the glaring flaws in his game and salivate at the thought of him winning MVP. I don't have a huge problem with him winning it this year as he was the best and arguably most valuable player on the team with the best record but no sensible person should actually think he is even close to being the best or most valuable player in the entire league. I say "arguably" because I'm not sure Houston would be considerably worse if Eric Gordon took his place in the starting lineup, even though Harden is clearly the superior individual player.

At Wednesday, May 23, 2018 6:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Fun fact: In last night's must-win game, the Rockets were +8 during the five minutes that Harden sat out and -5 in the 43 minutes that he played.

Of course, Paul--and great team defense in the fourth quarter--saved the day. As I noted in my preview, Houston only has a chance if Paul picks up the slack when Harden disappears or is not effective.

It is very unusual for GSW to squander a double-digit lead. Game five is obviously crucial; the game five winner in a 2-2 series wins the series over 80% of the time.

At Wednesday, May 23, 2018 11:06:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well David, it's pretty baffling to me why you continue to make all these excuses for RW and not afford Harden the same, or continue to bash Harden as he continues to lead his team deep into the playoffs. UTA was hardly a superior team to OKC. If RW is as great as you claim, OKC should've won the series. Getting outplayed by Mitchell and George for most of the series doesn't help RW's case.

GS, when healthy and especially when clicking which they were in games 1 and 3, are a vastly superior team to any team in the NBA. Must be painful for you to watch HOU regain homecourt advantage and only 2 wins from the Finals with Harden having a great series, though hard to see GS losing the series.

Nick, Harden can pretty clearly be the best player on a title team as evidenced so far this season. He was pretty clearly the best player in the league during the regular season, which is no small feat with guys like KD and James around. HOU won their first 2 rounds pretty easily. Now, they're 2 games from the Finals against a GS team featuring 4 AS and 2 past MVP winners. Harden's averaging 30/6/6 on efficient shooting for the series. He's putting up huge numbers against a solid defensive team and outplaying Curry, though KD has been slightly the best player in the series so far. Obviously he needs help just like anyone KD/Curry/James or anyone else. I'm confused why when he gets help, then the focus in here shifts from him so much, very weird.

At Wednesday, May 23, 2018 7:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Your obsession with Harden is baffling to me.

You confuse facts with “excuses.” I cite facts about players and I draw logical conclusions. For instance, it is a fact that Utah went 29-6 down the stretch. Utah was a better team than OKC entering the playoffs. I picked OKC in seven because I thought home court would be the deciding factor.

Your opinion that Westbrook was not the best player on his team or in the series is not a fact. Westbrook led both teams in scoring, rebounding and assists. Those are facts.

It is also a fact that Harden repeatedly has choked in the playoffs and that in big games against tough competition his team often does better when he is on the bench, as was the case last night.

Harden is two losses away from being eliminated. His team has the best record and is fully healthy. They should win but I expect him to choke again and lose; that last sentence is opinion/prediction but we will soon see if it becomes fact.

At Friday, May 25, 2018 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

I never expected the Rockets to get this far. Adding Chris Paul was a bigger boon than I could have imagined based on most of his previous performances in the playoffs and he's done a very good so far of picking up Harden's slack. He is possibly out for the rest of the season or at least Game 6 though as of current writing, so it was be interesting to see how Harden responds to the added adversity in the next two games.

At Friday, May 25, 2018 4:21:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Well, prophecies for both teams seem to be coming true:

* Golden State (and especially KD) are getting consistently baited into playing Houston's game, and it's working in the Rockets' favor. KD is scoring like gangbusters but he's got the same number of assists as turnovers and their over-reliance on his 1v1 game is rendering them predictable, and chilling the rest of their offense some. It was especially telling that Kerr, while on mic during a timeout, was trying to get him to pass more.

* Harden is shooting 41% from the field and 25% from 3, but being carried by great performances from Eric Gordon (who seems to have been sipping "essence of Sam Jones" in the locker room before games) and Chris Paul. Whether he can right the ship with Paul out (or whether Gordon can reach an even higher level) will likely determine the series. His assist to turnover rate sucks too, but we also probably saw that coming.

It should be noted here that Harden's struggling to score despite being defended primarily by an injured Steph Curry with little lateral quickness. Whether that reflects poorly on Harden or well on Curry (or both) is probably in the eye of the beholder, but it's worth noting in either direction.

*Golden State is super vulnerable to injuries; since losing Iguodala they've lost two straight close games and seem unable to figure out who their best five man lineup is. That Curry and Thompson are both playing hurt can't be helping either, although both are still shooting decently.

On the other hand, stuff we (or at least I) didn't see coming:

* Holy crap, Eric Gordon! His efficiency numbers are just ok but his ability to make a big shot or steal whenever the Warriors start to build momentum is uncanny. He's been Houston's MVP the last two games, for my money. I mentioned Sam Jones earlier, but it also reminds me of Robert Horry, who'd often put up iffy overall stat lines while making the two or three biggest plays of the night.

* Chris Paul is showing me something, and it's a shame he's hurt. It's not unfair-- Golden State's missing one of their best five guys and has two more playing on one leg apiece--but it is a shame.

* Draymond is a disaster on both ends, surprisingly. His offense has always been inconsistent but his defense has not been up to his usual standards, and he's been especially prone to dumb fouls.

* The Warriors as a team are bobbling what feels like every rebound. They get hands on everything, they just can't seem to corral anything.

At Sunday, May 27, 2018 1:32:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

After Game 6, a few thoughts...

* Harden's defenders will point to his statline, but people who actually watched the game will point to his complete inability to do anything on either end in the second half.

* Eric Gordon is still on fire.

* The Warriors, as I've been saying all series, are better when they run their offense and cut/move the ball than when they get suckered into Houston's Iso-ball. Durant had a bad game and his team still won by 39, in large part because everyone else was engaged/allowed to do things.

* I like watching Klay Thompson play basketball.

* I hope Iggy and CP3 can play in Game 7, but Houston's only shot is probably if Iggy can't and CP3 can.

At Friday, June 01, 2018 2:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Sorry that there was a bit of a lag before the most recent comments posted. Blogger is experiencing some problems with its email comment moderation system.

* At the start of the season, I did not expect the Rockets to get quite this far but as the season progressed and the matchups crystalized I realized that the Rockets would not be first round fodder this time around.

* I agree that GSW relied too much on isolation ball and that this played right into Houston's hands. Iguodala's absence really hurt GSW at both ends of the court. This was similar to the '96 Bulls losing Harper for a stretch during the Finals and that series suddenly becoming competitive.

* If Harden had taken over in the second half of game six or game seven, then the Rockets would have advanced to the Finals. No one who has followed his career closely should be surprised that Harden failed to seize those opportunities. No matter who was hurt or who was healthy or the relative strength of each roster, Houston was in position to win either game--and those are the kinds of situations that elite players do not let slip by. If Harden had played great but Durant or Curry had been even greater then so be it--but that is not what happened at all.

* I agree that Harden did not play well or efficiently. It is baffling that his repeated failures to perform well when it matters most are just glossed over by the same media members who roast five-time champion Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook for their supposed "sins" against basketball.

* Gordon has emerged as a very good two way player in Houston.

* It is unfortunate that Paul got hurt but that is something that I factored into my prediction. I explicitly stated that Paul is likely to wear down, as that is something that happens to him almost every postseason.


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