NBA playoffs 2019: James Harden's Rockets failed in postseason again, but that doesn't have to destroy them
As awful as Houston feels after its loss to the Kevin Durant-less Warriors, it must keep aiming high
The reaction to the Houston Rockets' failure to beat the Golden State Warriors last Friday was swift and scathing. From The Guardian to SB Nation to this very website, its title window was declared closed. The Rockets' entire approach -- from James Harden's high usage rate to the frequency with which they run isolation plays and shoot 3-pointers -- was under attack. On NBA TV, center-turned-analyst Brendan Haywood said they must shoot more midrange jumpers and put Harden in the post.
"There's something more than talent that you need," The Athletic's Marcus Thompson said on the "Warriors All-82" podcast. "Something more than scheme. And the Rockets just don't have it, man. They just don't." He added that, if Kevin Durant re-signs with Golden State, Houston's front office should break up the team.
The prevailing theme: It's not that the Rockets lost, it's how they lost. In an elimination game against the team they've been obsessed with beating, they didn't take advantage of Durant's absence or Stephen Curry's scoreless first half. When they had to be their best, they weren't, and it was all the more crushing because of the contrast presented by the team that beat them.
Beating Houston was the Warriors' toughest challenge, but it brought out the best in them. They played with freedom, knowing they had two shots to close it out and their best chance was to create chaos. If it had been a battle of execution, the Rockets would likely have won. Instead, it was messy and their mistakes doomed them.
After the buzzer, Golden State's euphoria spoke volumes. Veteran Andrew Bogut, who was there for the first title run and Klay Thompson's miraculous night in Oklahoma City, called it the best Warriors victory he'd been a part of. They were the biggest underdogs they'd ever been in a playoff game since Steve Kerr was hired, and they needed everybody. Bogut, Jordan Bell and Quin Cook played meaningful minutes. Andre Iguodala made five 3s and Kevon Looney grabbed four offensive rebounds. Shaun Livingston shook off his aches and pains and scored 11 points, two of which came on a one-handed dunk that brought all of his teammates to their feet.
Even with all of that, they trailed by seven at the beginning of the fourth quarter. They wouldn't have advanced without Curry and Thompson making clutch 3s in a hostile environment against a defense that was trying to stop them from touching the ball.
"After Game 5, I texted Steph, 'If it was easy, it wouldn't be any fun,'" Dell Curry told The Athletic's Ethan Sherwood Strauss. "When you win, that's what makes it so gratifying. Because it's so freaking hard."
Golden State embraced that it was hard. This is a team that struggles with motivation, having made the last four NBA Finals and won three of them. Numerous Warriors were clearly tired, but the nature of the situation energized them. Losing Durant represented real adversity from a basketball perspective -- they missed his isolation scoring, his shooting and his rim protection -- but it also represented opportunity. "With Kevin, you have that luxury of you can be kind of lazy," Draymond Green told reporters, and without him they had no choice but to be sharper, faster and more spirited.
Now the Rockets are in what looks like a dire situation. They would be wise to learn from the team that put them there.
It will likely be a while before Houston's players, coaching staff and management feel better than awful. Despite being one of the most successful teams in the league in the last few seasons, the Rockets have become an easy target for ridicule. To some people, they represent hubris (for acknowledging that they were wanting to face the Warriors), geekiness (because of Daryl Morey's background in analytics and their midrange avoidance) and cowardice (for the whole refereeing fiasco, and for seemingly being psyched out in big moments). They have been roasted on the internet and will be roasted some more, but, sometimes, being dismissed can -- pun kind of intended -- harden a team.
In the 1994 playoffs, a Houston squad led by MVP Hakeem Olajuwon lost the first two games of their second-round series against Phoenix Suns despite home-court advantage. The Houston Chronicle's front-page read, "CHOKE CITY." When it came back to win the series in seven and capture an NBA title, "Clutch City" was born. Many analysts wrote this year's team off after its 11-14 start, but Harden used the Rockets' desperate situation -- they were banged-up, struggling on defense and devoid of other playmakers -- as a springboard to history-making numbers, saving their season in the process.
There are reasonable arguments for exploring major trades. The Rockets have an imperfect roster, and Morey might be the league's most aggressive executive. I cannot, however, accept the idea that they are fundamentally beyond repair or destined to come up short every year. Harden's costly turnovers and missed free throws in a crucial game shouldn't invalidate one of the best individual seasons in NBA history. The offense that produced 27 straight missed 3s in Game 7 last year also produced 112.1 points per 100 possessions against the Warriors in this series -- only Golden State, Milwaukee and Denver have eclipsed that mark in these playoffs.
As Houston recovers from its regrettable, heartbreaking loss, it should double down on the qualities that made the team good: innovation, creativity and the drive to find little edges. One of the most admirable things about the Rockets is their willingness to go for it. In an effort not to waste Harden's prime, the franchise took aim at one of the most talented teams this league has ever seen. Harden adds something to his game every year, and maybe Clint Capela can develop a few skills to make him more more suited to the matchup that matters the most. Their next effort to diversify their offense will almost certainly work out better than the Carmelo Anthony experiment.
After losing Game 7 against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, coach Michael Malone brought up how last season ended for his Denver Nuggets. He called their play-in game on the last night of the regular season a "motivating loss," as it drove the improvement that almost took them to the conference finals. The loss to the Blazers, he said, will have the same effect. Nobody is framing the end of the Rockets' season this way, but think about what a story it would be if Harden, Chris Paul and Mike D'Antoni finally slayed their playoff demons together.
Of course it will be hard to come back from this. If it was easy, it wouldn't be any fun.
CBS Sports HQ Daily Newsletter
Get the best highlights and stories - yeah, just the good stuff handpicked by our team to start your day.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox for the latest sports news.
There was an error processing your subscription.
The Lakers are hoping Vogel will have more success than Luke Walton was able to have
Also, watch SportsLine on CBS Sports HQ live at 6 p.m. ET for all today's best bets
Here's the lastest mock draft after last week's NBA Draft Combine
Magic may be right about some of Pelinka's dealings, but Los Angeles is still an absolute...
Johnson had a whole lot to say about his exit from the Lakers
Mike McClure, a DFS pro with almost $2 million in career earnings, gives optimal lineup ad...