I’ve been angrier with the Rockets. I’ve definitely been more frustrated. But for downright, full-on disappointment, this undoubtedly takes the cake.
Trending on social media today are the hashtags #chokeharden and #jamessoften. And in a season in which both the Rockets and James Harden mostly swayed the prevailing public opinion (there were hardly any “no-defense” videos that I can remember), it feels like we’re basically back to square one. And to be honest, it’s not entirely undeserved.
The Rockets’ 39-point defeat at home to a short-handed Spurs team in an elimination game showed a startling lack of fire. Injuries to both Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard left the Rockets in an advantageous position, but they just couldn’t get out of their own way.
Houston’s 75 points represented their lowest point total of the season, and the man we’ve been touting as the rightful MVP throughout the playoffs finished with just 10 points on 2-11 shooting with 6 turnovers. And the box line wasn’t even the worst part.
The Beard looked slow, disinterested and not all there in the biggest game of the year and one of the biggest of his career. In fact, it was so bad, some were even speculating that Harden was playing with a hidden injury or even a possible concussion.
That’s how mind-bogglingly bad things looked last night, that we were almost hoping that Harden actually had a brain injury. That’s how inexplicable his performance was. At least a concussion would explain things.
Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that simple. What a few nights ago was a successful 55-win season with a third-seed and an MVP candidate, now appears in the aftermath of the Game 6 defeat as an abject failure. We always thought our Rockets could lose once they reached this point in the season. They weren’t the favorites coming into this series. But we never expected them to lose like that.
The Rockets now head into the offseason with questions about their superstar, their coach, their GM and even their philosophy as a franchise. That’s what this kind of loss can do to the psyche.
Can James Harden ever lead a team to a title? Will Mike D’Antoni always be nothing more than a very good regular season coach? Will Daryl Morey every assemble a championship roster? Is the organization’s borderline obsessive focus on analytics the real problem here? Analysts will be asking all of this. Some of these questions we may even ask ourselves, as fans.
But it’s important to go back remember that just a few days ago, this was a successful Rockets’ season. While the ultimate goal is always a title, and in that sense the Rockets failed, recall that they were slated for a borderline playoff team before the year started. Most projections said wins in the low-to-mid 40s and a likely 8th-seed and first-round sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
Instead, what we received was the fourth-highest win total (tied) in franchise history and one of the most scintillating individual campaigns in not just team history, but in league history. The Beard was that good for the vast majority of the season. The Game 6 loss, as traumatic as it may have been, doesn’t change any of that.
If you recall, after the big Game 1 win for the Rockets, I wrote this piece declaring that no matter how this season ended, James Harden was entering his prime, and there was sure to be trophies (NBA title and/or MVP) in his future. We were entering the “peak Beard” period. As difficult as it may be to see the forest through the trees of disappointment, nothing about last night’s defeat should ultimately do anything to change those feelings.
Harden is still just 27. He can, and will, continue to get better. This was just the first season in a new system. The players will continue to get more comfortable. Will there be some changes? Sure. Who knows what Morey has up his sleeve for the offseason. The only true untouchables should be Harden, Clint Capela and Patrick Beverley. Roster improvements, in some capacity, will be made.
This team will be better. In fact, there’s a chance for this version of the Rockets to mimic the last great Houston team. There are some serious parallels.
Back in 1993, the Rockets were coming off a 42-40 year and were entering the first full season of head coach Rudy Tomjanovich. They had a somewhat mercurial superstar who was immensely talented and put up massive numbers in the box, but many were unsure if he contained the necessary internal fortitude to lead a team to a title (seems silly in retrospect, doesn’t it?)
With a new system built entirely around Hakeem Olajuwon, the ‘93 Rockets exceeded all expectations in a 55-win season, and Olajuwon put in an MVP-caliber year. He averaged 26.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 4.2 blocks and 1.8 steals per game. Statistically, it may have been his most complete campaign.
But he lost the MVP vote to Charles Barkley, and the Rockets were eliminated in the second-round in heartbreaking fashion to the Seattle Supersonics in 7 games. It wasn’t a meltdown loss, but it was every bit the gut punch last night’s Game 6 was.
We all know what happened next. With a few roster tweaks, the Rockets went on to win two titles, The Dream went on to win a regular season MVP and two Finals MVPs, and a superstar and franchise who just a few seasons prior had major questions about their collective ability to succeed at the ultimate level was now a part of all-time NBA lore.
This is that opportunity for these Rockets. It’s the chance to take the heartache of such a crushing defeat and turn it into something positive. This is the opportunity to grow, both for the team and its superstar. A bad loss has that power.
It also has the power the change a franchise in the opposite direction. Rockets history shows us that as well. The 1997 team also sustained a crushing defeat, losing to John Stockton and the Utah Jazz in infamous fashion in the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets were still loaded the following season, but that team was never again elite. In fact, it took a full 12 years before the Rockets would again make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
But with a full offseason to think about it, to fully come to grips with the sting of falling apart on the national stage, I have confidence that James Harden evolves even further and takes the fortunes of the franchise along with him.
There are certainly tweaks to make on his part — fewer turnovers and better shot selection among them — and the franchise will undoubtedly attempt at least some roster change.
But the Rockets still have something 26 other teams do not: one of the league’s five best players. And he recognizes that he needs to get better to take his team to the promised land, telling ESPN:
“Everything falls on my shoulders. I take responsibility for it, both ends of the floor. You know, it's tough, especially the way we lost at home for Game 6. But it happened. Now we move forward."
They also have an owner who wants to win now and a GM always willing to make just about any move to make it happen. Things could be a lot worse in H-town.
It stings now for all of us, that’s certain. But with another five years or so to go in Harden’s prime (barring catastrophic injury, of course), something tells me this is far from the apex. No, it’s likely just the beginning.