41-41. The eighth seed in the playoffs because of a tiebreaker over the Utah Jazz. A first-round matchup with the greatest regular season team in basketball history.
This is how the Rockets season was inevitably going to be, after the team decided it was most comfortable hovering around .500 and in the fringes of the playoffs. In fact, if you had asked me the most likely spot for the Rockets back in December, I probably would have said the eighth seed. I was far from alone.
But this is the ending that, like this season, also keeps one emotionally ambivalent. Am I happy the Rockets just lost a first-round draft pick for the honor of getting slaughtered by the Golden State Warriors in the first round? Of course not. But I also appreciate that the Rockets had enough pride to come out and hang 130, 129 and 116 against the Lakers, Timberwolves and Kings. The opponents sucked, but unlike earlier in the year, the Rockets thrashed them.
But the Rockets lost a vital game at home against the Suns a week ago. They dropped a winnable games to the Bulls at home on March 31. The loss to the Mavericks last week was painful. Win two of those three games, and instead of 41-41, the Rockets are 43-39 and in the six seed, facing an Oklahoma City Thunder team against whom they split the season series. These playoffs could have actually been something.
ESPN's score predictor tool gave the Rockets a 3 percent chance to win their first-round matchup against the 73-9 Warriors (man that's an insane number to write). That feels high. There will be fans, in the comments section below and elsewhere, who will say the Rockets have a chance, that they're dangerous, that they play their best ball in April and May.
Tell those fans to shut up, frankly. Last year is over. This team is much, much worse. Last year's team played the Warriors close for a while, but still went 1-7 against them. The Rockets haven't even lost by single digits to the Warriors all year. This series will almost definitely be a massacre. And even if the Rockets steal the series, it's just not worth talking about the possibility because it's such an unlikely scenario.
So here we sit. In a very awkward position. The Rockets and Warriors will play on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT on ABC. Before the series begins, and as it goes on we have to cover it as we would any other preview series: matchup breakdowns, conversations with the enemy, all that jazz. We owe it to you our readers to not just mope about this but to treat it as what it is: a playoff basketball series.
But let me take this opportunity to say, this feels weird. After watching the Warriors trounce the Grizzlies and Kobe drop 60 points in the most memorable regular season finale of all time, coming to grips with the bummer this season has been since November — or October if training camp injuries ruined your month — is not pleasant. I held out hope far too long that the Rockets had enough in them to turn it around, and it's hard to rekindle that.
There's a great saying from Seinfeld that goes something like: rooting for a pro sports team is like rooting for laundry. We're rooting for those red and white and yellow and sometimes gray jerseys, essentially. James Harden's second half has made him easy to root for, but he's not exactly a Yao Ming combination of personality, talent, aesthetics and work ethic. Yao's laundry is quite the large burden to take on, and Harden has been passable.
There's Patrick Beverley, god bless him. Chances are Donatas Motiejunas doesn't see much of the court against the Warriors because he can't keep up. Clint Capela is fun to root for, ditto K.J. McDaniels and Trevor Ariza. These guys make it easy to root for the laundry they wear.
But even Playoff Dwight will still make me shake my head at D12's behavior this year. It's grown increasingly clear that he doesn't deserve the role he covets, and he hasn't been handling it well. His laundry has become smelly and in need of a wash/donation to the Salvation Army. Jason Terry was wearing the wrong laundry for too long. Corey Brewer has left skid marks all over his laundry this year. Ditto Josh Smith.
Next year, the Rockets' laundry will have an entirely new cast of characters to wear it. But this season is, somehow, not over yet. So I will still be rooting for this laundry until the bell tolls, but that doesn't mean I'll enjoy it.