CHICAGO - James Harden made only five of 21 field goals and misfired all nine of his 3-point attempts. The soon-to-be named league MVP, who logged 19 points on the strength of a 9-for-9 fare at the free-throw stripe, looked passive in crucial stretches and he over-dribbled his way to six turnovers.
The misery was contagious.
As a whole, the Rockets converted just 29 of 78 shots (37.2 percent) including a mere 13 of 43 from long distance (30.2 percent) They narrowly lost the rebounding battle, 41-40, and they dished fewer dimes, 18-12.
But a night that could have easily turned tragic became magic. Because Flash Gordon, disguised as Eric Gordon, saved the day.
Gordon, an intrepid veteran of 10 seasons, splashed a big 3 from 27 feet to give Houston a 95-91 cushion with 1:21 to go. And with 3.7 ticks left, he stole the ball from a careless and hurried Draymond Green before nailing two pressure-packed free throws to seal Game Five, 98-94.
The fact that Houston survived Harden's ongoing inefficiency and the team's failure to launch its high-powered offense made me begin to believe in these Rockets.
Maybe it's destiny. Maybe the Warriors are a fool's gold and the twinkle of their championship trophies blinds us from even considering that the Rockets are perhaps the better team, one that has shown more poise. more toughness, and more chutzpah the last two games.
Kevin Durant had 29 points but he went just 8-of-22 shooting. Steph Curry had 23 but he clunked six of eight triples and missed a short jumper that could have given Golden State a one-point lead with 13.2 seconds left. Klay Thompson tallied a robust 23 points but the Warriors had 16 turnovers that kept them in chasing mode right from the get-go.
Despite their steeled nerves and the mental acuity developed from being around big playoffs moments in recent years, the Warriors blinked in Game Five, exposing a palpable vulnerability many of us never saw coming.
With a 3-2 series lead plus the comfort of a possible Game Seven in their Toyota Center home turf, the Rockets are 48 minutes away from a trip to the NBA Finals.
Sadly, they won't get there. So tantalizingly near, yet so devastatingly far.
And I'm not declaring this because I'm a hater. I do so because Chris Paul is hurt and Houston will only go as far as the 33-year old point guard will take them.
With 51.7 seconds to go in Game Five, Paul sat out the remainder of the breathtaking war that saw 10 ties and 16 lead changes.
He suffered a hamstring injury, "a strain or tear to the tendons or large muscles at the back of the thigh." Its causes, according to medical website nhs.com, include "sudden, explosive movements such as sprinting, lunging or jumping and slower movements that overstretch the hamstring."
Marc Spears of ESPN reports that Paul has had this same injury four times before. CP3 missed two games in the 2015 Western Conference Finals, five games in January 2012, seven games between December 2016 and January 2017, and three games just this past March.
While the basketball gods blessed Paul with tools many mortals can only dream of, he has also been cursed by injuries. Since joining the NBA in the 2005-06 season, the Wake Forest alum has missed 174 regular season contests. In those 13 seasons, he has only played the full 82-game schedule once, in 2014-15.
How much time he will miss depends on the severity of the injury. If it's only a Grade 1 (mild muscle pull) he could be back in a few days. If it's a Grade 2 (partial muscle tear) or a Grade 3 (complete muscle tear), the 6-foot, 175-pound pit bull is likely done for the rest of this series.
Either way, there's no way Paul will be 100 percent again, assuming he even plays in Game Six or Game Seven.
"It's a concern," Rockets wing man Trevor Ariza told The Houston Chronicle.
Well, that's like describing hell as warm. Paul's good health is everything to Houston. He is the heartbeat of this group, the fearless court general who helped rip the Warriors' beating heart in Games Four and Five. They are nothing without him.
Esteemed 18th century poet and editor John Greenleaf Whittier best capture what the Rockets are thinking.
"For all the sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: "It might have been."
Indeed, instead of planning a championship parade in downtown Houston next month, the Rockets will spend the long summer wondering what if.
The Warriors, proud champions that they are, would rather beat Houston with Paul at full strength. But they can't dictate how the pendulum swings and how fate turns out.
In basketball, sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good.