By: Forrest Walker
The Rockets are on the verge of elimination in a series they absolutely cannot afford to lose. If they let one more game slip away, let one more lead crumble, let one more critical possession fall apart, there won’t be a second round to watch. If Houston loses in this, the first round of the playoffs, there will only be recrimination, regret and wringing of hands. How the Rockets might avoid that fate is a different matter entirely. For now, the question is what happens if they fall to the Portland Trail Blazers.
There’s always a price for failure, but it varies depending on the situation. Twenty-nine out of thirty NBA teams fail every year, and they pay a variety of prices for it. The Phoenix Suns this year are paying a toll of disappointment at missing the playoffs, the same toll the Rockets paid for four years. The San Antonio Spurs lost in brutal fashion during last year’s Finals, coming within a hair’s breadth of winning a thumb ring for Tim Duncan. The price of losing that five point lead over 28 seconds has been high, a year’s worth of pangs and frustration to go with a lifetime of replaying a handful of moments in one’s head. What bill, then, would the Rockets pay?
The Houston Rockets organization made first round home court advantage their absolute goal, and they achieved it. The regular season was more or less a success in that sense, with the Rockets winning 54 games for the 4th seed in the west. The problem arose when the Portland Trail Blazers started winning games. The expectation was for Houston to sail into the second round over a struggling Blazers team, but a 1-3 series deficit is torpedoing that notion. A first round loss is exactly the reason what the Rockets wanted to avoid by securing a top four seeding in the playoffs. If they lose one more game, this season was a failure.
Houston has been under the microscope all season long, a status which can only be expected. The national view of Dwight Howard is overwhelmingly negative, and his decision to leave the Lakers, one of the most storied and popular franchises in all of sports, was a choice that enraged legions of fans and more than a few members of the commentariat. James Harden, on a national stage, has had a chance to show what he truly is. He’s an offense-first player who creates bad situations for opposing teams and draws slews of fouls. Houston has become used to watching players live on the free throw line, and the Rockets themselves are happy to seek out hyper efficient points from the charity stripe. The rest of the world is less excited to watch a brand of play that is more metagame than gamesmanship, a player who looks like he’s exploiting a loophole.
Add onto that the often unwatchable style of play, the jacking up of random threes, the endless isolation play, the needless and only moderately successful post ups from Dwight and the regular lack of effort or execution on either end of the floor, and this team is full of traits that people hate paired with players that people hate. Last year, the Rockets were a fast-paced scrappy underdog. This year, they’re an indifferent favorite and it’s only natural that a huge amount of people would like nothing more than to watch them fail.
The price for failure in Houston’s case is a year of prevailing narrative in which the Rockets, Daryl Morey, Dwight Howard, all of them were wrong to do whatever they did. The endless berating of the Thunder for trading Harden will not only look tame in comparison, it’ll even be partially lessened by this new narrative. Harden will have been a cancer the whole time and only a few die hards will continue to excoriate Sam Presti for trading James. The Rockets will be singled out, again, and will be given endless lectures on how they could have avoided failing. Some may be insightful. Most will not.
Perhaps the most horrifying part of this situation for the Rockets and their fans is that every higher seed in the Western Conference might lose in the first round. Each of those four teams would have to pay a price for that loss, but none so high as Houston.
The Spurs have lost before and will lose again. Time seems to have little hold on them, and their organization is too staid to be much injured by another summer of doubters.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have weathered this storm before and can easily do it again. Their core still has another decade of championship window left, and may be a player or a coaching change away from a ring in any case.
The Clippers have high expectations internally, but are less policed by the greater community. Their brand of basketball is fast and fun, their team is well-run and well-liked and they have few pieces aging out any time soon. The biggest threat to their long-term livelihood, the controversy swirling around their reprehensible owner, would ironically obscure any first-round failure and effectively give the team a bye on whatever happens this postseason.
In the regular season, the Golden State Warriors were expected to duke it out for home court and be one of the toughest outs in the regular season. The Warriors fell well short of the goal, something that Houston may have expected to distract from whatever bad patches the Rockets were catching flak for. In practice, it didn’t work that way. Just because another team disappoints more does not mean that disappointment will be deflected that way. Every higher seed could lose, every series could be an upset, the Dallas Mavericks could (yes, they really could) make the Finals this year, and the Rockets losing in the first round would very likely be considered the biggest failure of the season. Context is critically important in games, but matters little in the court of public opinion.
The spotlight is on the Rockets now, as it has been all year, and the audience is getting restless. Houston’s heel turn this year, at least in the eyes of the world, has increased the pressure and more importantly increased the penalty for losing. If the Rockets fall to the Blazers, it’ll take a strong resolve from owner Les Alexander and general manager Daryl Morey to not respond to the endless cries of “I told you so” from detractors. This may be one of the toughest summers ever for the Rockets, but that’s just the price you pay for failure.