For the second straight season, the Houston Rockets came up short in the playoffs and for the second consecutive season, they came up short against the Golden State Warriors. Losing to the team that has won the NBA title in three out of the last four years isn’t such a bad thing. Well, that holds true for most NBA teams but probably not for one that was once branded as “built to beat the Warriors”.
Built To Beat The Warriors
When the Houston Rockets decided to trade Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell to the Los Angeles Clippers in order to get Chris Paul, the intention was to win now and compete with one of the best offensive teams the league has ever seen in the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors burst into the scene in 2015 behind the Splash Brothers, a young and sharp-shooting backcourt which broke three-point records here and there. The Warriors broke the Chicago Bulls’ 72-win season in 2016 and it looked like nobody was going to stop them. When Paul wanted out of the Clippers, the Rockets believed that getting the best point guard in the league would relieve James Harden from his point guard chores and allow the Bearded One to concentrate more on his main job: scoring.
With Paul, the Rockets now had a dynamic backcourt which they felt could match with the Warriors. The Rockets also surrounded their stars with three-point shooters and they made the three-pointer their primary scoring weapon in every game. The Rockets have led the NBA in three point shooting-attempts and makes, these past two seasons. They have also broken three-point records along the way.
Losing To The Dubs, Again
With their fast-paced, three-point shooting and guard-driven play, they emerged as the Warriors top threat. Houston appeared to be headed to accomplishing their goal of beating the Warriors when they led last year’s Western Conference Finals 3 games to 2. But Paul suffered an injury during their Game 5 win and was unable to play in Games 6 & 7. The Warriors won both games and sent the Rockets packing.
It seemed that injury would hurt the Rockets again this season with Harden and Paul going down separately early in the season. But they got the entire team healthy just in time for a playoff run. From being out of contention, the Rockets finished strong and were the 4th seed in the West going to the playoffs. They beat the Jazz easily in Round One and were headed to another showdown with the Warriors in the second round.
The Dubs rushed to a 2-0 series lead but Houston stormed back to win the next two games at the Toyota Center to tie the series. Golden State lost Kevin Durant to injury in the third quarter of Game 5 but instead of capitalizing, the Rockets watched Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson take turns in making clutch baskets. The Warriors survived Game 5 but the Rockets still had Games 6 and 7 with Durant out due to injury. But again, Curry and Thompson took over and the Rockets were eliminated again at their home court in Game 6.
Losing to the Warriors for the second straight season is difficult. If you look at the bigger picture, Golden State has eliminated Houston in four out of the last five seasons. That’s why you can’t blame them for building a team that will beat the Warriors. Golden State has been their roadblock in the last half-decade. But after repeated failures, some believe that it’s time for a change in Houston-whether it’s a change in strategy, change in manpower or both.
But if we take a look at the Rockets’ defeat this season, it was really very close series and it could really have gone either way. Remember that every game in the series was decided by 6 points or fewer and when you look at the aggregate score, Houston lost the series to Golden State by an aggregate of 11 points.
If we go back to last season’s defeat in the Western Conference Finals, don’t forget that Houston missed 27 consecutive three pointers in Game 7. That doesn’t happen every day, not especially to the best three point shooting in the league. But that’s what happened and that’s why Houston is where they are right now.
Rockets Next Move?
You can call it a case of the breaks going Golden State’s way. You can call it luck or the lack of it for Houston. If there’s anything positive about this, it’s that Houston has been very close this past two years. But there are no consolations here. It’ either you win the title or you don’t. There are no moral victories.
When you take a look at Houston’s payroll for the 2019-20 season, $107M is already allotted for James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon. That means there is little to no wiggle room to work around this postseason to add top free agents. So unless they make the drastic change of trading one ( or more) of their Big Four, we’ll probably be seeing the same Rockets team next season.
Now that’s not going to be too shabby for Houston fans. The Rockets would still be the top challengers to the Warriors, the arrival of Zion Williamson in New Orleans notwithstanding. The Pelicans will most probably not trade Anthony Davis to a western conference rival so that won’t be a problem too. The key for the Rockets’ future would be where the likes of Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and even Kevin Durant go. If there is a status quo, only Durant will return to the West and it will be like 2018-19 scenario all over again. The Warriors will once again be NBA betting favorites in the West and the Rockets are next or third.
There are people who are talking about Chris Paul’s inability to lead a team to a title. Paul has been the best point guard in the NBA for years but he’s only made it to the Conference Finals once and that was last season. But remember that while Paul is the point guard, Harden is still the primary playmaker. This is James Harden’s team and not Chris Paul’s.
I am not blaming Harden either. The guy is probably the most over-performing player in the league along with Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s not that Harden is trying too hard that he’s failing to deliver. It’s just that the Warriors have just found ways to win. You can never underestimate the heart of a champion. As for Houston, they just have to try harder next season. Losing two in a row is just strike two. Baseball says it’s three strikes before you’re out.
The Rockets should run it back again next season. It’s not yet time to overhaul this sportscar. Sure, the defeats have been demoralizing and tough to swallow. But that’s how the game goes. Houston has one of the best players in the league in Harden. They have a good back-up in Chris Paul, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon. Their role players are excellent. Mike D’ Antoni has done a great job. I think they’ll do it all over again next season, but this time around, they’ll be smarter and wiser. And hopefully, they will finally get over the hump like Jordan and the Bulls finally beat the Pistons.