When arriving at the last day of the regular season, the Houston Rockets did not know if they would end the night like the seeded No. 4 in the Western Conference or the vault until the No. 2.
A chorus of onlookers insisted that finding a way to stay at No. 4, even if it meant losing intentionally, would be Houston's best bet to dethrone its main rival, the Golden State Warriors. The No. 4 face, according to the reasoning, would line up the Rockets to face the Warriors in the second round, rather than in the conference finals, thus reducing the fatigue that team superstar James Harden would accumulate before the showdown. exhausting. , while also increasing the likelihood that their frail and aging leader, Chris Paul, He would stay healthy for the confrontation.
For the promising worries about age, fatigue and injury, instead of the two defending champions, it seemed pretty late.
But now Houston, which finished with the fourth seed, is looking completely healthy in the second round and giving the Warriors a fight for their lives.
And durability has become a concern for Golden State, since its star striker, Kevin Durant, who has somehow been even more dominant in these playoffs than in previous years, suffered a calf injury in Game 5 on Wednesday that is expected to keep him out for the rest of the series, if not more.
The search for a fourth championship in five seasons, and an extraordinary triple, will be tested dramatically by the speed with which the coaches and players of Golden State can adapt. They will enter Game 6 on Friday with a three-game lead to two in the series, but also with the local Houston crowd in their ears.
The results could illuminate some of the critical decisions made by coach Steve Kerr in recent seasons about the so-called load management of his players, a concept he embraced before the phrase became popular, and one with which he held firm as the league took energetic measures against rest of healthy players during regular season games.
In the first test of life without Durant, the final 14 minutes of Wednesday's victory, Golden State initially had problems, but lit things up in the fourth quarter, with the original core of the dynasty: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, making his way to a 104-99 victory. The resurgence inspired Kerr to invoke the words of Jürgen Klopp of Liverpool, who a day before had described his players as "giants", modifying that description with an adjective that is not suitable for publication.
"I know how he feels," Kerr de Klopp said, borrowing the inadequate word to describe his own group of giants. "That was an incredible victory tonight."
However, beating the Rockets in Houston on Friday, or winning 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 core of the team was younger and supported by a much deeper bank in the two previous seasons, when Kerr took over and guided the franchise to two league finals and his first title in 40 years.
Kerr seems to be very aware of the changes in the demands of his team. He received a strong lesson on the importance of rest during the 2015-16 season, when his team gave everything they had to set a regular season record with 73 wins only to run out of energy when a cooler and hungry Cleveland Cavaliers team He broke into a championship by eliminating a 3-1 deficit in the finals.
Even Adam Silver, the commissioner of the N.B.A., who has been strongly against healthy players at rest, acknowledged the value of the break on Thursday, and said the league might have to rethink its regular season of 82 games.
"Maybe there are too many games in the player's bodies," he said.
To that end, Kerr has worked in recent years to limit his players' minutes in the regular season, and as a result, the disparity in workload over the past five years between the Rockets and the Warriors is probably not as wide as some wait. Especially if you consider that the Warriors have played 94 playoff games over the past five seasons compared to the Rockets' 60.
Each team employs a central rotation of seven men, with a cast of characters in rotation. in the eighth place. Both teams depend on several players in their 30s; the Rockets actually have two of the three oldest regulars in the series, P.J. Tucker and Paul, who are 34 years old, a year younger than the senior player in the series, the Warriors Andre Iguodala.
The core of seven Golden State players has ambaded a total (regular season and combined playoffs) of 82,994 minutes over the last five seasons, while the seven of Houston, of which, only Iman Shumpert has advanced beyond the finals of conference in those years, has 80,828.
That leaves an average of just 62 extra minutes per player per season, or about two games per value for a typical starter.
The difference is that Houston has asked its players to support a much higher load in the regular season. Harden leads all players in the series with 14,471 minutes of the regular season in those five seasons, 1,543 more than Thompson, the most-used Golden State player. In total, the Rockets core has logged 5,028 more minutes in the last five regular seasons, while the Golden State core has a 7,194-minute lead in the use of the playoffs.
The imbalance is even greater among the starters, as Golden State's top five, including Durant, almost double their Houston counterparts in playoff minutes.
That emphasis on the playoffs above everything else is nowhere more evident than with Green, the Warriors' smallball center, who apparently embraced the methods of Shaquille O'Neal using the regular season as a training ground. Prolonged training before getting in shape for the playoffs. .
At the behest of Golden State General Manager Bob Myers, Green lost 23 pounds over a six-week period at the end of the season, and has appeared more elegant than at any other time in recent years. In badessing his game in Wednesday's victory, Green, 29, made no attempt to hide the fact that he had considered the regular season as a warm-up.
"I know I get paid to play this way during the playoffs," he said. "My teammates expect me to play this way during the playoffs."
However, what remains to be seen is how much it cost Golden State to take the win on Wednesday. The expected benefits of Houston to reach a match before last year have largely developed, with Paul staying healthy and Harden closing the games, although it is worth noting that Harden was worn out considerably in the fourth quarter of Wednesday. Now the Rockets have a real chance to knock out the league's dominant team, as it rearranges their rotation and gives more minutes to players like Kevon Looney and Jonas Jerebko, who are much less tested in battle than the team's stars.
Much of the pressure to close the series will fall on Curry, who won the league's Most Valuable Player Award in the two seasons prior to Durant's arrival. A return to the center of the Golden State offense has been long awaited by a group of Curry fans. Stimulated by the podcast "The light years, "have popularized the phrase" #stephbetter "on Twitter to insist that Curry's good shot, and the attention he receives from defenses, powers Golden State's dominance more broadly than Durant's domain. of all the skills of the game.
Curry fans have been steadfast in their belief that Golden State can overcome its heavy reliance on Durant, which is dramatically evident in a comparison of the team's stats with him on the court and out of it in this postseason, by simply unlocking the potential of your star guard point.
But since Curry's shot became precarious in recent times, while Houston seemed capable of feeling annoyed even before Durant's injury, Golden State is as vulnerable as it has been at any time in the past three years. So the Warriors will have to wait for Curry's gravity, along with Kerr's workload strategy, to be enough to allow them to survive.
If not, a season that sometimes seemed like an inevitable conclusion could be as open to the end of the conference as any other year, at least since 2006, if not in the late seventies. And Houston, having "failed" to improve to No. 2 in the West on the final day of the regular season, would be ready to take advantage of that power vacuum.