The last time the Rockets were this much fun to watch was May 14th, 2015, when a Houston squad sitting squarely on the brink of the season's end rallied together in an epic 19-point comeback that saved the series and propelled them into the Western Conference Finals.
The special thing about that game was that it was a true team effort, with a multitude of major contributions across the board. Practically ever main rotation member had something to contribute. James Harden had 23 points, but sat during the now legendary fourth quarter and watched his teammates lead the charge. (Can you imagine that happening this season?)
Josh Smith and Corey Brewer finished with 19 apiece and led the three-point barrage that sealed the Clippers' doom. Brewer also pitched in 10 boards. Dwight Howard finished with 20 points and 21 rebounds. Trevor Ariza finished with 13 points and 3 threes. Terrence Jones finished with 16 points and 5 boards. Jason Terry had 7 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists, and even Pablo Prigioni made some timely plays in his limited 14 minutes of action.
It was the moment a talented group morphed into a talented team, and it was a squad that might have had a legitimate shot in any other year if not for facing a historically dominant Warriors team in the West Finals. Last night's 119-105 comeback victory over Portland, however, was not of the same variety.
This was more the James Harden Solo Tour then the Houston Rockets Variety Show, with The Beard exploding for 46 after going for 42 Tuesday night against Utah. Harden put up 19 points in the deciding fourth quarter against the Blazers and was basically a one-man wrecking crew. And it was certainly amazing to watch. Trevor Ariza told ESPN's Calvin Watkins:
"Unreal. The guy is unreal. What he did tonight is very, very, very special. We needed him to do it. He wanted to do what he did, and that's the type of person and player he is, always steps up at big times when we needed to."
And as awesome as it was, therein lies the Rockets' problem, and it's what separates this Rockets' squad from last year's. The Rockets need Harden to be mostly otherwordly to beat teams, especially the good ones (make no mistake, the Blazers have been playing extremely well of late. They're good). They just don't have enough guys playing well to be successful if Harden's not playing like a monster.
This isn't to say there weren't other contributions last night. Dwight Howard finished with 19 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks to go along with some thunderous dunking. Patrick Beverley and Jason Terry each knocked down two triples, and Trevor Ariza played some fabulous defense to help offset a horrid 1-10 shooting night.
Ariza came through with 8 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals, and it was his defense on Damian Lillard, especially down the stretch when the Rockets held the Blazers to just 12 fourth quarter points, that helped solidify Harden's offensive juggernaut performance into a win. Lillard told Watkins:
"A lot of sets that we like to run, we try to get into them at different parts of the court, but Ariza was guarding me, and he's a big defender, a long defender. And sometimes when you try to get a hand back or a back door, you don't want to mess around with that. So they disrupted our offense."
So there were others that stepped up. A 21-point comeback win doesn't happen without it, regardless of what Harden does. But the ancillary players still need to do substantially more before we see that the lightbulb has finally turned on.
The Rockets got next to nothing from Josh Smith, Ty Lawson and Terrence Jones. They got a little from Montrezl Harrell, but he's still not playing enough to make a huge impact, which means that even in a dramatic and impressive victory, half of the Houston rotation is barely contributing.
Veteran leader Terry recognizes this as well, as he told Watkins:
"We ask him (Harden) to do a lot for us on both ends of the floor. It's why he's the franchise, man. He's going to deliver. One thing about him, him and Dwight, we can count on. Trevor Ariza, we can count on. It's the other guys that we have to get our level up, and once that happens, we have a special group. We have a group that can do something special, but it's going to take a collective effort."
Then of course, there are still the off-court issues plaguing this team like a dark voodoo hex with yesterday's news reported by CBS that Harden was responsible for getting former coach Kevin McHale fired and also for maneuvering to have Dwight Howard traded.
It was immediately followed by a strong rebuttal from Rockets' CEO Tad Brown, who called the report "disappointing" and "bothersome", but regardless of what side of this story is correct, there's no doubt there is still some type of continuing dysfunction happening within the organization. None of this is the sign of a healthy team and a healthy locker room.
This is not to say we shouldn't celebrate the win. It was a total blast, and I was actually yelling with joy at my screen during a Rockets game for one of the only times this season. But while the Rockets were able to turn the game around, there's a lot more work to be done before they've turned a page for the season. And time is running exceedingly short.
With a locker room still this flawed, both on the court and off, the Rockets are likely waiting until next year to truly have a chance at turning this thing around.