Watching the Lakers-Rockets game last night, I couldn't help but be reminded of another Houston sports team who had just months earlier stumbled into the playoffs with late season losses to inferior teams. The Rockets, who had a chance to lock up at worst the 7th seed with just one win against the Suns or Lakers, fell to the 8th seed in the Western Conference just as the Texans had lost back to back games to the Vikings and Colts in December.
Both teams had a chance to avoid a nightmare matchup in the playoffs, with the Texans potentially missing the Broncos and Patriots until the AFC Championship Game and the Rockets avoiding the Thunder in the first round, and both failed in spectacular fashion.
If you don't remember the story, the Texans had a chance to be the number one seed in the AFC with just one win against the 8-6 Vikings and the 10-5 Colts. Both were decent teams, but the Texans had to be feeling pretty good about their chances given their 12-2 record entering the last two weeks. In each game, the Texans offense did not get on track, with Matt Schaub struggling in the spotlight. When all was said and done, the Texans had forfeited the #1 seed, a bye in the first round, and a chance to get to the AFC Championship Game without facing the Patriots or Broncos.
The Suns, the holders of last place in the Western Conference, seemed completely helpless without Marcin Gortat patrolling the middle, and the Lakers were stuck starting Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks in the backcourt with Kobe and Nash's injuries.
So what happened in each case? It was pretty simple, the centerpiece of the offense failed to live up to expectations and each coach failed to make the necessary counters to defensive adjustments.
For the Texans, a predictable run game to the left side of the line got shut down, the defenses figured out the play action attack, and Matt Schaub struggled with pass rushers in his face. Kubiak continued to try and run between the tackles, didn't mix up the pass game, and the Texans high powered offensive attack struggled. When Matt Schaub's passes started to miss their mark, it got even worse.
On the hardwood, once the Rockets' pick-and-roll game got bottled up, James Harden turned to isolation plays. With his foot still not 100%, defenders were able to stay in front of him. The end of last night's matchup was perhaps the biggest example of this. Harden got the ball down the stretch at the top of the key, held it for 20 seconds, then either hoisted up a contested three or passed it to Jeremy Lin for a forced shot. The lack of set plays or a post presence in the offense hurt them when the offense bogged down.
In the end, the Texans predictably were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Patriots as their struggles carried over to the postseason, and I can't help but thinking the Rockets are going to suffer the same fate as them in the first round. Unless Harden goes nuts in the series or the Rockets pull out something crazy from their playbook, I can't imagine them just flipping the switch offensively and running the Thunder off the floor.
We can still hope. After all, fandom without hope is pretty meaningless. Or maybe it's just what being a Jazz fan is like.