The Rockets lost to the Warriors, again, for the fourth time in five years. This year’s ignominy, after missing 27 threes in a row in last year’s Game 7, was failing to take a game from Golden State after their best player, Kevin Durant, was injured.
This season, far more than the previous two Durant-on-the-Warriors seasons, Golden State has looked vulnerable. The 2018-2019 Warriors won fewer games; their defense slipped; they sacrificed depth for an injured and ineffective DeMarcus Cousins; and their heart and soul, Draymond Green, had his worst season in years while reportedly feuding with Kevin Durant.
And they still beat the Rockets in six games.
In the wake of this failure, we’re getting postmortems on James Harden, Mike D’Antoni, Clint Capela, Chris Paul, Gerald Green and more. Complaints that this team’s core and coaching staff just can’t win. That the Rockets need more pieces. That Mike D’Antoni’s style won’t work in the playoffs. That the Daryl Morey math just won’t work.
All of these are natural reactions to a loss that appeared like it should not have happened, but perhaps caution should still be the order of the day. The Rockets’ gameplan against the Warriors to slow the pace, allow Durant isolations and prevent the Splash Brothers from running up the score from deep has basically worked. This year, they simply got unlucky with shotmaking.
Over six games, the Warriors outscored the Rockets by 11 points. And over those six games, Andre Iguodala shot 48% from 3-point range – 12-of-25 – after shooting 33% from deep during the regular season. He shot 62% (5-of-8) in the Game 6 closeout game. If Iguodala shoots 8-of-25 (32%) from deep in this series, or 3-of-8 in the closeout game, the Rockets have outscored the Warriors and won Game 6.
While we can caveat this with the fact that it was by design that the Rockets wanted the Warriors role-players to have to make threes, this is still an unlucky break. Sometimes in the NBA, you need a lucky bounce, as Toronto did to beat Philadelphia. And sometimes, as in the Rockets-Warriors matchup, the bounces just don’t go your way.
There is the sense that the Warriors themselves know that this Rockets team is their biggest threat and biggest rival. Despite meeting in the second round, their road gets easier from here and they know it. ESPN described the Warriors’ locker room as celebrating like they had won the NBA championship, and the Warriors owner said it was one of the biggest wins the team had ever had under his ownership. The Rockets, and these specific Rockets, are the threat to the Warriors, and they know it. These Rockets are damn good.
Are there questions that need answering in an extremely important offseason? Yes. Did James Harden wear down and get lazy attacking screens? Can Chris Paul ever again be an impact offensive initiator? Can Clint Capela stay on the floor against small lineups? While he played poorly in the minutes he did play, should Danuel House have seen the floor more often? What about Gary Clark or Kenneth Faried? Did the defensive coaching staff need to scheme better for a Warriors team that simply could not be stopped in crunch time? What have we learned about the impending free agencies of House, Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, Gerald Green and Iman Shumpert?
These are important questions, but I do not think that the Capela question is an important one. He’s at a nadir for trade value coming off his worst playoff series in a once-in-a-generation matchup in which he was played off the floor. I’m not worried. We’ve seen him take on Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, and Steven Adams, among others, with little to no problem in the playoffs. Contra Rahat, I do not think that it is “obvious that he has to go”; he is and will be a valuable piece going forward, and a bad series against a one-of-a-kind team that redefined smallball and features some of the best offensive players of all time is not, for me, a nail in the coffin for Clint Capela.
What would be cause for tearing it down? Well, if the Rockets had lost in a sweep, or if they had lost in five games in mostly blowout fashion, perhaps a reconsideration would be in order. But a close six-game loss to a team that, even when apparently vulnerable, features a collection of historic talent nearly unrivaled throughout NBA history, is not occasion for panic. We don’t panic when James Harden has a bad series against the Spurs in a bad matchup featuring defenders designed in a lab to contain him; I’m not doing the same for Capela this year. He makes $16.4 million next year – less than Jonas Valanciunas, Timofey Mozgof, and Jabari Parker. For a plus starting center who can outplay some of the best centers but might at times get played off the floor, his salary and role on the team is fine, even if it’s perhaps not what we might have hoped he could be.
The Harden-Paul-Gordon-Capela-Tucker core of the Rockets has proven that they are one of the best in the NBA. Yes, next year will be another year older with a bunch of over-30 players, and another load heavier on Harden’s considerable shoulders; and yes, there is the feeling that the weight of the world upon Harden will cause him to collapse at any moment and that his prime is slipping away and that this team will be forever knocking on the door but never breaking through. This team is nonetheless consistently one of the the best in the NBA, and has drawn blood multiple times from the Warriors. Other teams will improve, yes; as Rahat said, to stagnate is to die. But the Rockets are lucky enough to have a star who never stagnates, and a General Manager who always manages to figure it out and improve on the fly. The Rockets need all of the above, but James Harden and the Rockets management have consistently delivered on all of that and more.