You could’ve said the Houston Rockets blew their best shot at a title in 2018 when, up 3–2 on the planet-eating Golden State Warriors, they coughed up consecutive double-digit halftime leads in the Western Conference Finals and lost in seven games. You could’ve said it a year later when, during the second round, Houston again failed to beat the Warriors after Kevin Durant exited with an injury and entered halftime of a closeout game tied at 57, despite Steph Curry scoring zero(!!!!!!!!) points in the first half. You could say it now after the Rockets, at last spared Golden State’s wrath, moped their way to a worse-than-it-looked 4–1 defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers Saturday night. You could’ve said each of those was their big chance. But you were probably right the first time.
I was extremely high on the Rockets coming into the season. True, Russell Westbrook was never quite as snug a fit next to Harden as Chris Paul was, but there was still reason for optimism. For most of his Oklahoma City tenure, Westbrook was a dragster forced to navigate forests of defenders, and he still completed the most passes to three-point attempts in his final year with the Thunder. Houston offered him, for the first time, a wide-open terrain to rampage and the shooters to cash in on his dimes.
The fully realized version of these Rockets might be modern-basketball Nirvana. If opponents double-teamed Harden, Westbrook could morph into a rocket-powered Draymond Green-variant and annihilate scrambling defenders on four-on-three opportunities. When it came Russ’ turn to steer, Harden could feast on easier catch-and-shoot threes and slice through softened defenses instead of relying on contested step-backs. On the other end, Houston’s platoon of rangy, switchable wings, anchored by human-anvil PJ Tucker, could wreak havoc in passing lanes and swarm paint-trespassers in packs.
Unfortunately, glimpses of those idealized Rockets were fleeting throughout their series against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Andrew Lawlor wrote that the Lakers could succeed where the Oklahoma City Thunder failed by using their size to dominate the paint. Early in the series, the Rockets held their ground, even matching the Lakers board-for-board in Game 1. In Game 4, Frank Vogel inserted Markieff Morris into the starting lineup and excised LA’s two bigs, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, from the rotation. From there, Anthony Davis did his best Godzilla impression, and the Lakers bludgeoned Houston on the boards to the tune of 50–26. One of the key factors in Houston’s foundational three-is-better-than-two inequality is relentless effort on the interior. Their Game 4 effort was, umm, decidedly not relentless:
The Rockets will (rightfully) catch a lot of flack for the way they projectile-vomited all over the floor after Game 1. But the Lakers weren’t just bystanders watching the Rockets’ three-point machine implode; they gummed up the assembly line with well-timed traps and clogged driving lanes with pinpoint rotations until Houston malfunctioned. After the Rockets shot 51 threes per game against the Thunder, the Lakers held them to just 40.8. LA’s destruction of the Rockets’ offense further highlighted the defensive precision Houston so sorely lacked.
Much like the team up north that whimpered out of the conference semifinals in five, the Rockets are staring down an offseason filled with questions they may be unable to answer. Houston has been in win-now-worry-later mode for years, and now, it’s later, and they’re almost completely devoid of cap space and tradeable assets. As of ~2 PM EST on Sunday, they’re also in the market for a new head coach. And in case you forgot, Daryl Morey, the architect of Houston’s mathsketball machine, is a few months removed from getting a not-really-endorsement from owner Tilman Fertitta. There’s a nonzero chance D’Antoni’s departure is only the beginning.
I don’t believe the small-ball experiment is a failure. Prior to the shutdown, Russell Westbrook looked like he’d tapped into the best version of himself. After
the end times 2020 arrived, Westbrook averaged 31.7 points per game on 52.7% shooting. The main factor? He largely eschewed outside shots from his repertoire, cutting his attempts from 3.7 per game to just 2.3 (NBA.com). That doesn’t solve the problem of the Lakers ignoring him behind the three-point line, but had Westbrook been more than an angry broomstick on offense, the Rockets might have stood a chance.
Despite how ugly the losses have been, the only teams to beat the Rockets in the last three postseasons are one of the most dominant teams ever and one of the most dominant individual players ever. The Rockets can reach basketball Nirvana; they just need to find the right combination of pieces, and those pieces have to perform at optimal efficiency. But that’s the thing about utopias: they’re predicated on theory and not practice, and operate in idealism rather than realism.