In 2016 when Mike D’Antoni became the head coach of the Houston Rockets, he initially raised some eyebrows when he decided to move James Harden from his customary shooting guard position to point guard. But the doubters of the move were quickly silenced as the Rockets were piling up the wins, while Harden became an NBA MVP. Over the last three years the Rockets have won 173 regular season games and been one of the most exciting teams in the NBA, but right now it does not amount to a hill of beans due to their inability to get it done in the postseason; most notably versus the Golden State Warriors.
In four of the last five years it has been the Warriors who’ve sent the Rockets packing from the NBA Playoffs, but the last two expulsions have been the most difficult for Houston to deal with.
Last year Houston won 65 games in the regular season to finish with the best record in the NBA which led to them earning home-court advantage throughout the postseason. The Rockets would breeze through the first two rounds of the playoffs in order to set up a meeting with the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. And in the conference finals, the Rockets had the Warriors on the ropes as they built a 3-2 series lead. However point guard Chris Paul would suffer a hamstring injury in Game 5 that put him on the sidelines for the remainder of the series. The Warriors would take advantage as that along with the Rockets missed 27 consecutive three-point field goals in Game 7 paved the way for Golden State to win the series en route to winning their third NBA Title in the last four years.
This time around it appeared that the Rockets and Warriors were on pace to meet each other in the Western Conference Finals once more until Houston would lose their final game of the regular season which saw them drop from second to fourth in the conference which paved the way for the two longtime foes to meet in the second round.
The first four games were close as each game was decided by six points or less with the home team prevailing in each contest. But the momentum of this series shifted in favor of the Warriors in the second half of Game Five when Golden State small forward Kevin Durant suffered a calf strain that would put him on the shelf for the remainder of the series. All signs pointed to Houston having the advantage, but they could not get the upper hand on the Warriors in that contest as they fell 104-99. And without having to deal with Durant for all of Game Six at home, the Rockets were still unable to win.
The biggest difference in the series is that following the Durant injury, the Warriors still played to win, while it was the Rockets who played not to lose. The Rockets kept it close to the chest as they were never able to dictate the pace, while Golden State got the best of them at each end of the court, and because of that they are headed home early once again asking themselves where did things go wrong.
Prior to coming to the Rockets, D’Antoni already had a reputation of coming up short in the playoffs which dated back to his time as the head coach with the Phoenix Suns. In Phoenix, D’Antoni built his team around point guard Steve Nash who’s ability to facilitate and spread the floor led to him being a two-time NBA MVP, while the Suns made consecutive trips to the Western Conference Finals. But just like it is for the current Rockets, those Suns came up short versus teams that focused playing defense and putting the clamps on their offense.
During this past regular season, Harden averaged 36.1 points per game. And during the series loss to the Warriors, Harden’s scoring output was slightly down as he averaged 34.8 points per game, but it was his inability to get it done in the clutch which is why he and his teammates will be watching the remainder of the postseason from home.
In the fourth quarter of the Rockets losses to the Warriors, Harden folded faster than Superman on laundry day as the golden jump shot was non-existent, and as it faded, so did Houston’s chances.
Harden and D’Antoni came into this series looking to right the wrongs that have plagued them for years and that is to get it done in the playoffs, but the elusive NBA Title is still not in their grasp.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has built his reputation in the NBA focusing on analytics and metrics in order to build his team, and although this has led to Houston piling up wins in the regular season, it has not amounted to the NBA Title as this team is lacking something that a computer cannot measure, and that is heart.
The Rockets lost this series not because they were inferior to the Warriors, but because Golden State wanted it more. And even though that the Warriors are currently the kings of the mountain, their hunger has never wavered. The Rockets were able to grab more rebounds than the Warriors for the series as they held the margin 251-238, but it was Golden State who made the most of their rebounds; especially on the offensive end in order to get more shots at the basket. The Rockets committed 87 turnovers to 83 by the Warriors, but Houston’s sloppiness with the basketball showed up at the most inopportune time as a good team like Golden State took advantage of their mistakes.
The outcry has already begun for the Rockets to attempt to improve this team heading into next season, but there is only so much that Morey will be able to do. The Rockets already have more than $120 million committed to player salaries for next season with Harden and Paul accounting for more than $75 million of that. And unless Rockets team owner Tilman Fertitta is willing to go into the luxury tax threshold, there isn’t that much that Morey can do. The Rockets are stuck with a star in Harden that cannot get it done, while his sidekick in Paul is aging who has a closet full of playoff demons himself. And as the Rockets have been unable to take advantage of their opportunities to slay the dragon that is the Warriors, they never will with this core as they’ll continue to be invited to dinner, only to watch Golden State do all of the feasting.