Houston’s season is over and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. There are hundreds of reasons why the Trail Blazers are heading to San Antonio to face the Spurs instead of the Rockets. An endless litany of moments and decisions led up to the final shot of the series, a moment that will define the rising star of Damian Lillard, a shot that tucks into the encyclopedia of Houston Sports Trauma right next to John Stockton. There are years left in this team’s core, years for the Rockets to improve and fight and perhaps win. There’s a future in Houston, but that’s tomorrow, next month, next year. Today, there is only the loss: loss of a game, a series, and a season. Today, there is nothing.
Sports are built on narrative and emotion. No matter how many analytics experts and synergy models and efficiency upgrades we build, the narrative lies waiting, whispering into the ears of fans, players and managers alike. The narrative demands that we learn something from failures, that victory only comes from years of work and struggle, that the good guys win and the bad guys lose. Emotion swirls around the narrative and adds meaning, necessity and justice to the mix. It’s necessary for the world to make sense, for the story to have a moral, for the heroes to get angry. The real moral of the story is that this isn’t a story. This is basketball, and now the season is over.
What’s the lesson to be learned? It’s nothing we didn’t already know. The Rockets have a poorly schemed and enacted defense. The Rockets stagnate on offense at times, especially in crunch time. The Rockets don’t run enough pick and rolls, their most effective play, instead going to mediocre isolations and post-ups. Losing to Portland in six games didn’t teach any valuable lessons, it just reinforced the issues that were already there. Trying to change plans, to learn new tricks, to add weapons all comes later, once every team is done with the NBA for a few months. There’s no opportunity for that now, with the arc of Lillard’s shot still burned into the heads of a city. Today, there is nothing.
Many hoped for a coaching change after this defeat, something to signify forward momentum, something to imply that the deck is being shuffled and next time the hand might be played better. Kevin McHale isn’t the best head coach in the league, and probably isn’t better than all the ex-coaches floating around in the analyst chairs and op-ed pages of the world. None of that matters, though, if none of those better coaches want to come to Houston, or if the players demand that McHale remain, or if the management believes in Kevin. It was probably some mix of those factors which led the Rockets to announce that they would be retaining McHale as head coach, running with this setup for at least another year. That’s not the worst choice, but it’s probably not the best. Most importantly, it’s not the progress, the change, the action that people expected from a team that just lost in the first round. Standing pat isn’t something; it’s nothing.
We don’t know, yet, how much of those six games came on the back of implosion from Houston or explosion from Portland. The Blazers went nova repeatedly, but until the face the Spurs, there’s no way to know if they were simply given the chance by an underperforming team. The Rockets collapsed late, over and over, lending credence to the idea that the Houston simply has to execute better, to mature. If this is the best case, then the best case scenario is simply to wait for a year, to do nothing today. The worst case is that the team is fundamentally flawed, that the core is unsalvageable, that James Harden is doomed to poor performances in the playoffs. Even if that’s true, even if Daryl Morey is regretting his decisions (which it isn’t and he isn’t), there’s nothing to be done. You don’t trade superstars, much less superstars that want to be there. They’re too valuable, their ceiling too high. You can’t blow it up. All you can do is wait for free agency to tweak the role players. Today, there’s nothing to be done.
The most terrifying reality for Houston, when the smoke has cleared, is that there’s no fire. When even a look at the context, at the basketball equations comes up blank, perspective only pulls the rug out the rest of the way. Narrative and emotion demand that someone be responsible for an injustice, that bad guys be fought and justice upheld. Reality demands instead that people go to work, care for their loved ones and push the Rockets out of their thinking. There was no injustice, no meaningful battle. There was a ball, ten men and two hoops. When Lillard threw that ball at that hoop, it felt like fate. It felt like a conspiracy of luck and cruelty. It felt like the end of a chapter in one saga and the beginning of another. In reality, it was a man throwing a ball. That time, the ball happened to go in, and now there is nothing.