I’ve now had over 48 hours to digest the disappointing end to Houston’s season. What started out in October carrying expectations of title contention ended in utter embarrassment, with the franchise now unexpectedly again at a crossroads. The Houston Rockets thought they were right there and now, they’ll need to tear it all down completely. What the hell happened?
Setting aside the gossip and conjecture, Houston’s twelve month demise can be summed up neatly through one quantitative comparison: the team’s defensive rating fell from 8th overall last year, to 21st this year. That defensive decline almost solely can be held accountable for the team’s record. The team actually improved offensively, finishing 12th last season, and 7th this season, in offensive rating.
The Houston Rockets ended their miserable 2015-2016 season the same way they started it: with laughable effort, pathetic shooting, and a summary execution at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Last season, the Rockets looked poised to be a serious force and a strong title contender if they could just take a step. What nobody guessed is that the step would be backwards, right off a cliff. There was nothing left to play for, no light at the end of the tunnel, and nothing left to root for except for an end to one of the most disappointing seasons in sports history.
I have been writing for some time now that the Rockets’ goal should be to be second best. That logic is underscored by the ramifications of the Steph Curry injury. To recap, many of you felt that a team led by James Harden could never top the Warriors and by extension, felt the Rockets should seek to trade James Harden to facilitate the construction of a team that could. I countered that such a course would be futile and take many years to bear fruit, if it did at all. I argued that, while perhaps defeatist, it was smarter to just aim to be “good enough”, or second best, just hanging around and staying in the picture long enough for luck to strike; I argued that it didn’t make sense to part with Harden when the Warriors’ window could close at any moment. “Staying in the picture” was how the Mavs won their title and how the Spurs won at least one of theirs. And if this Curry injury is as severe as it might be, it’ll be how the Clippers or Thunder will win their first, if the Spurs don’t add yet another. Fortunes turn quickly in the NBA, and if the Rockets were any good, they too would be right in the picture.
Had the Rockets had any pride, they’d be 2-2 at this moment with a very real shot to advance. I don’t think this series is necessarily over, but Houston blew a golden chance. Going forward, this entire episode reaffirms my belief that just being second best is good enough.
Let’s just get the most important thing about this game out of the way – and which has absolutely nothing to do with the Houston Rockets and everything to do with Stephen Curry.
Curry was clearly limited in the first half, but you could see how much better he makes the Warriors. Even while he could not shoot, Curry is an underrated distributor and he did a great job at finding the open man for the Warriors in the first half. Never mind the fact that his mere presence at the three-point line can send even the best defenses panicking and scrambling.
In fact, I would say that despite the scoring disparity between the halves, I don’t feel like the Warriors played significantly better basketball in the second half. They just went bonkers from three-point range and the Rockets played a lot worse.
And boy, did they play worse. The first half was the most inspired play which I have seen from this team all season long. They got several nice lobs to Howard, Beasley scored so well that the Warriors double-teamed him, Harden facilitated, and Beverley ran around like an animal.
But then the Houston Rockets, tied at the half and facing the prospect of going down 3-1, “dropped their guard” according to J.B. Bickerstaff. And as they have done this season, the Rockets had a stretch or a period where the fans start to think things may turn around before getting slapped down by the hard wall of reality.
And as the Rockets face Game 5 and elimination on Wednesday against a Golden State team which will probably not play Curry, only the most hardcore of hardcore Rockets fans might believe they can take one, let alone two games in the Oracle Arena.
You could argue Shaun Livingston was the catalyst in Golden State getting back into the game on Thursday night, and almost stealing the victory. I went back and watched all thirteen of his field goal attempts. Here were the six made baskets:
- a fast break where he got behind Beverley and slammed down an alleyoop pass from Draymond Green.
- a semi-fastbreak where Harden picked him and he blew past Terry easily for the slam off the switch.
- a post up against Beverley where he just shot up over the top.
- a post up where he shot over the top of Beverley.
- a post up where Beverley gambled, he got past Beverley, and then he scored over Beasley on the help.
- a play where he pump faked Harden, got him in the air, and hit a mid range jumper.
Here were the seven misses:
- A pullup jumper against Beverley.
- a missed jumper by Speights that for some reason NBA.com has listed as a field goal attempt by Livingston.
- a midrange jumper against Terry where he went around the pick.
- a drive against Harden where he missed the layup after a good contest at the rim by Harden.
- a post up against Harden where he missed the face up jumper.
- a midrange pullup after some dribble moves, against Ariza.
- a tear drop in the lane where he was matched up against Harden, Beasley switched, and then he got open after Harden was picked off in the lane.
Not surprisingly, the damage was primarily done against the much smaller Beverley. The Rockets did a pretty good job on Livingston otherwise. With Steph Curry coming back, the dynamics will be different tonight, as Livingston will go back to the bench. But I wonder if Golden State will look to him in the post earlier, something they didn’t look to exploit until the second half on Thursday.
Obviously, you want to keep size on Livingston at all times, and that means either Harden or Ariza. The problem there is that you need Ariza for Klay Thompson if he’s also on the floor at that same time. I also worry that we’ll see Corey Brewer reinserted into the lineup tonight as an extra wing for Livingston.
A situation like this would seem tailor made for the strengths of K.J. McDaniels, but I’m guessing J.B. finds his offensive limitations a net negative. I’d personally play McDaniels with Beasley so that even if Harden is sitting, you know you have a threat to score one on one regardless of the spacing. Hopefully, the Rockets can keep it close enough this afternoon to where the chess match will matter.