By: Forrest Walker
The Houston Rockets can play good basketball at times. The Houston Rockets also play very bad basketball a lot of other times. In tonight's win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets showed us a bit of both. They pulled away to a 20+ point lead in the third quarter, making it easy to forget how they ended up just three points ahead of the Lakers at halftime. In a bizarre game, the Rockets gave us reminders of what they are, why they're frustrating, and how much fun they can be.
This is the story of the Houston Rockets this season, and if we're being honest, the last three seasons. They can be at once an offensive juggernaut and also completely inept with the ball. They can lock down a team one minute and simply stand and watch layup after layup mere moments later. They're a swirling cauldron of parts and talent that can't quite seem to simmer into a stew correctly. It was the best of basketball, it was the worst of basketball.
The Los Angeles Lakers, on the other hand, are just awful. This team is actually quite likely to hold onto their draft pick this year, because it's top-three protected. They're fighting with the Philadelphia 76ers to see which team can notch more bumbles per possession. This is a team which ranks 29th in offensive efficiency and 30th in defensive efficiency. The Rockets were up 60-57 at halftime. This is not good.
The Lakers, in the first half, were able to do whatever they wanted. The Rockets were missing some open looks, and the Lakers were hitting some tough shots on top of this, and the spiral of shame and recrimination which surrounds Houston losses was threatening to boil over. The Rockets seem to be able to handle only so much frustration before the whole thing comes apart and they embarrass themselves on national TV.
Fortunately for them, the Rockets put it together in the second half. Whatever head coach J.B. Bickerstaff did in the Locker Room at halftime worked, leading to the Rockets dominating the third quarter 34-18. Suddenly the good Rockets were back, Harden was hitting three pointers, and Dwight Howard was joking with Lakers fans who still hate him. This was last year's feel-good team, risen from the ashes of this year's "we have to talk" team.
The secret, of course, is that these are the same team. This is the secret that's hard to accept and confusing to internalize. The same things that makes the Rockets powerful at times, their freewheeling, fast moving style, their devotion to finding any way to score, their collection of overlooked players, all of these are double-edged swords. James Harden is the salvation of the Houston Rockets and also their damnation. Their players are all better than they should be by some metrics and huge disappointments by other ones. The Rockets leave their fans confused, with no idea what to do with the team or how to measure what they are.
The Lakers fans in attendance had no such conflict. They simply cheered any time the Lakers did anything remotely good and booed whenever their enemy, Dwight Howard, had the ball. It's amazing to watch such a relationship with a team, much less a team so nightmarishly bad. There is a charming simplicity of this relationship: Los Angeles loves their Lakers, and they hold out hope while they find joy in watching Kobe Bryant play out his final months.
There is no such clarity with the Rockets. James Harden scores 31 points on 17 shots tonight, but took 10 shots to get 11 points in the previous game. Harden can destroy three on one fast breaks by himself and he can crater the team's defense. It's not just disappointing, it's not just frustrating. It's confusing. It hurts to watch the Rockets, whether they're giving it their all or phoning it in, because we think we know what their potential, but we don't think they're going to ever live up to it.
The Los Angeles Lakers are perfect targets for the Rockets. They're terrible, and the Rockets have some reasons to really care about those games. Dwight Howard still have some points to prove about that city, and NBA players still seem to see the Lakers are an important team in general. Maybe this is why the Rockets got invigorated enough to put them away in the third, giving the starters the fourth quarter off, letting Montrezl Harrell and the bench style all over the Lakers. Maybe that's why we saw the good Rockets show up eventually.
It still doesn't change the fact that the bad Rockets showed up, too. Even worse, it doesn't change the fact that the "good Rockets" and the "bad Rockets" are the same team.