They've just got to play a little bit harder. They just have to find one second ball-handler. Once Donatas Motiejunas comes back, the offense will work as it's supposed to. If they can feed Dwight Howard, other players will be more open. If James Harden only tried, the defense would be great again.
We've heard those platitudes over and over again this year, from the coaches to the executives to the players to the media to the fans, trying to explain to the more pessimistic and haterific folks out there that this Rockets team can turn it around. It's the same group as last year, after all. Why couldn't they?
As we tried to talk ourselves into the Rockets giving the Warriors a fight in the first round, we used the same flawed logic the Rockets have all year: just wait. We have talent. We'll figure it out eventually.
But here's the thing about NBA basketball: no talented team that has already been together has turned it around without a major shakeup. LeBron James' Heat teams took more than a year to fully coalesce. His Cavs squad is still figuring itself out, but after Game 1 it looks like they're on the right track. But those are teams that are learning to come together, not forgetting.
The Rockets put together a brilliant run last year, and reloaded this year. The story does not need to be retold. But we've been falling prey to this fallacy all year long. But NBA basketball has always been the ultimate team game, and in Game 83 just like in Game 1, the Rockets have proven that this year's bunch just does not play as a team.
Aside from the anonymously sourced rumor mill stories about James Harden and Dwight Howard's soured relationship, there's enough evidence on the court to suggest this team doesn't play together. This year, the Rockets were dead last in defensive rebounding, and we've watched countless examples of Rockets defenders helping on a penetrator, only to watch no one step up behind them.
The Rockets were 16th in the league in assists (22.2 per game), but seventh in pace, suggesting they're actually a bottom-third team in the league when it comes to distributing the ball, rather than an average one. Teams don't all of a sudden start to pass more and box out better. Those qualities are instilled in training camp and practices.
And maybe this all does come back to training camp. Half of the Rockets' roster was injured in the run-up to the season, and they didn't have many chances to play together before opening the season with back-to-back-to-back 20-point losses.
But that would be too easy of an excuse for this team. The Rockets remain hopelessly less than the sum of their parts, just as they have been all year. Anyone who expected this to change when the playoffs started is a fool.