By: rahat huq
It's 7:07 A.M. right now at the time of writing. I've had a little over six hours now to digest last night's loss. I've calmed down a bit and am glad I stepped away when I did. Had I not, I would have certainly written things I'd later regret - things fueled by pure, unadulterated anger. As I said last night, I was livid. In fact, I don't think I can even recall the last time I've been so upset during and after a Houston Rockets game.
The unfortunate part is that this should be a time for celebration. The team will be playing its first playoff game since 2009, and its first playoff game in Red94's existence. Instead, all I feel right now is anger: anger over the way the team completely choked at the end, for the second year in a row, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and bumbling away a golden chance to face a hobbled Spurs team against whom some felt they can beat. Instead, they will now open at Oklahoma City, the expected Western Conference champion.
Last night's meltdown started and ended in predictable fashion in the same manner in which we've seen far too many losses this season. The Rockets began the 4th with another one of Kevin McHale's patented smallball lineups, one that saw journeyman Carlos Delfino guarding the 7-foot Pau Gasol. Both Jeremy Lin and James Harden sat on the bench--a predicament which by any evaluative measure, either statistical or observational, should absolutely never occur yet for some baffling reason continues to with unacceptable frequency--and things played out as expected. The Lakers, with the size advantage, gained momentum and then never looked back. That's really all it takes in the NBA. One lineup error for a one-minute stretch and the game turns. I had written all along, through the first three quarters, that while Houston was leading, one just didn't feel comfortable. Things got much worse, though.
The starters were brought back in and what ensued over the next several minutes, spanning from the latter half of the 4th quarter through overtime, was what I described last night, in the moment, as a complete and utter disgrace. Now let's take a quick moment to step back for some perspective: the Rockets choking in the clutch is nothing new. In fact, I wrote about it just the other day. Their league-leading offense shrinks to one of the worst in basketball in late-game situations. So this is a problem you saw coming. Why it became so tough to stomach was because of the stakes and the stage, and a duration which felt like an eternity.
As is pretty much the case anytime the Rockets are involved in a close game in the 4th quarter, the team completely abandoned its pick&roll offense, resorting to the dreaded "hero-ball spread." For those who have been living in a cave, (or don't have CSN), this is a set where, essentially James Harden holds the ball at the top of the key while the other 4 players spread out of the way. Harden then dribbles the ball for about 20 seconds and chucks up some variation of a contested jumper, whether it be from straightaway '3' or of the stepback variety within 2 point range.
The offense completely sputtered, LA capitalized at the other end and maintained the lead. Chandler Parsons then hit perhaps the flattest 3 point shot in the history of basketball, everyone on Twitter erupts, and the game goes to overtime.
The Rockets then start out overtime, in creative fashion, running a few isolation sets for Parsons. Those of course don't end well. Harden starts hogging again, gets blocked a few times and the game ends. See you in Oklahoma on TBD at TBD.
A few thoughts which may or may not end completely off topic: Who is to blame: Harden or McHale? First, Harden. Actually, scratch that. Let's say the good first:
- Omer Asik had one of his best games of the season, completely shutting down Dwight Howard in the first half. Jeff Van Gundy remarked numerous times in the first quarter, "I don't understand why they're doubling Howard against Asik. His (Omer's) defense is better than Howard's offense." I didn't understand McHale's reasoning either. Of course, the double teams led to numerous open 3's in the first quarter, shots which enabled the Lakers to stay in the game at that point. In any event, Asik sealed off the paint and converted numerous other times offensively with violent slams.
- Chandler Parsons really seems to play his best on national television.
Now, the bad:
- This was Harden's worst game of the year. 30 points on 25 shots. Going vigilante on offense (unless that was the call from the bench; more on this later.) Bitching at teammates for his own mistakes. Interestingly, viewing the fan reaction on Twitter and other venues, you can kind of sense the end of the honeymoon for the faithful with Harden. Now in no means am I implying that he isn't adored. Unless J.J Watt were also running, Harden would win any mayoral contest here - he's basically put the Rockets back on the map and given this city hope it hasn't had in years. What I mean though is that, we've entered that phase where, after the honeymoon, you still deeply adore your significant other but you no longer view them as The Second Coming. You start to see the flaws and realize you're going to have to cope with them. That's becoming the case with Harden. His abysmal defense has already been extensively documented. Now it's the late game hero-call spontaneity and the bitching at teammates.
- I noted several times last night where Harden, after throwing an errant pass to Asik, which Asik predictably failed to reel in, barked at the Turk on the way back down. This is something I've seen many other times over the course of this season. I quipped on Twitter that this is quickly becoming an abusive relationship as Asik just turns, puts his head down and meekly runs back to the other side of the court. The irony here is that for all of the times Asik has covered for Harden on the defensive end, you'd think he'd have boughten him a Rolex by now or something. Sidenote: A friend and I have a theory that the only way to stop the abuse is to nip it in the bud from the get-go. Did you ever have that fat friend in childhood who never said anything when everyone picked on him and made fat jokes? What happens is that after the initial taunts are not met with rebuke, it becomes ingrained in the public gestalt that such ridicule is acceptable. This then perpetuates the abuse. Same thing in sports. You'll often see that teams are quick to heap blame on one particular whipping boy, even when unjustified, simply because they've let it be known that they'll allow it.
- McHale: I wrote this summer, in my evaluation of his performance last season, that Kevin McHale deserved a C+. What was an 'A' for his handling of such a young team was brought down to a 'C' for his role in one of the greatest meltdowns in franchise history. That same can be said for this season though not to the same degree as this loss is in no way comparable to a 6 game late season losing streak. It's simple, and Jeff Van Gundy has said it himself. When a team gets blown out, its on the players. When they lose close games, especially in the exact same manner every time, that's on the coaching. Whether ISOball is the call from the bench or Harden is going off cue is a subject for later debate, but there is simply no justification for some of the completely unimaginative plays the Rockets have run out of timeouts. Throw a wrinkle in here and there. Instead of 4 guys watching Harden, how about 3 guys watching Harden while one guy bends over to tie his shoes! I don't know...do something to vary it up. There is literally no excuse for the game to end last night, on a critical possession, with Jeremy Lin chucking a desperation 3 pointer after James Harden dribbled away 20 seconds from the shot clock. None.
Finally, it begs the transcendental debate: is it Harden or McHale? If we build from the premise--regarding which everyone should be in agreement--that the Rockets' late-game offensive schemes are completely unacceptable, upon whom should the fault be placed? There are those who put it on McHale, believing that the total abandonment of the team's actual offense is by design. And then there are those put it on Harden, assuming that The Beard is ad libbing off cue against his coach's instructions. Either way, there's going to have to be a solution and you can bet it will be discussed: the superiority of team offense over conventional crunchtime ISOball is almost axiomatic in the stat-geek community. But what's the solution? If McHale is the problem, you just replace him. But if it's Harden, there's hope too: numerous other young superstars, from Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, had to be reined in and made to understand the importance of trusting the scheme and trusting their teammates. Remember: James is just 23. This is his first time in the spotlight and he no doubt wants to prove his worth. I suspect that with age and experience, these warts will change. But in many cases, at least in Jordan's and Kobe's, it took a coach that the star actually respected, for that transformation to occur. Now, I don't want to speculate, especially on the eve of the playoffs, but while we all may disagree on the cause of the issue, we can agree it's a problem that needs to be fixed and probably won't be addressed until the summer.
Whatever happens, this was fun, and despite the 'bad', this was still an unforgettable season and one of the most enjoyable in Rockets history, primarily because of the efforts of the two men upon whom I just cast blame above. Bring on the Thunder.