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What I Miss (and Don’t Miss) about the Houston Rockets

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

With the NBA season being placed on indefinite hiatus, I’ll admit that it’s been fun not having to think too much about the Houston Rockets. After all, most of my pre-COVID evenings were devoted to the Rockets and/or the NBA in general. With the games halted, I could focus my attention on binge-watching my DVR backlog, reading (I finished Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie last week), or playing with my dog.

Then Darren ordered politely requested that I get off my ass produce something for The Dream Shake. In all seriousness, he gave me a great idea and I’m ready to talk with my fellow TDS-ers again in the comments. So here are the top 3 things I miss, and 3 things I don’t miss, about the Rockets being on hiatus.

Things I Miss

Russell Westbrook proving us (but mostly me) wrong

Yes, it’s me. You might remember that I once wrote a piece titled “Stop trying to make Russell Westbrook to the Rockets happen.” I wrote at length about how Westbrook’s game didn’t fit with Houston’s style and that it would be a giant mistake to acquire the mercurial point guard.

Most notably, I wrote this:

When the trade was reported four days later, I expected the Rockets to fade to mediocrity and be fighting for a playoff spot rather than surging up the ranks to compete with the Los Angeles teams.

I was wrong.

It took Russ a little over two months to figure out his fit with the team, but once the calendar turned to 2020, Westbrook was the player that Daryl Morey envisioned when he traded away a bevy of draft capital for Russ.

Whether it’s the out-of-control drives that work way more often than they should, or the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it one-man fast breaks, the Brodie has been phenomenal for Houston. He was a deserving All-Star (yes, over Devin Booker) and the Clint Capela trade has unlocked Russ in a way that Sam Presti, Scott Brooks, and Billy Donovan never could in Oklahoma City.

James Harden finding his groove

To be candid, I was missing Harden even before the hiatus. While Russ’s star has been rising since 2020 began, Harden’s has been falling. What was an incredible 2019 for Harden has turned into a nightmare this year. After averaging almost 38 points per game through the end of December, Harden has been averaging closer to 29 per contest ever since. While 29 points per game would be a lot to...oh, every player in the league, it’s a slump for Harden. The shooting numbers have been awful, including at the free throw line.

For as great as Russ has been, the Rockets can only go as far as Harden takes them. When he’s on, he’s a cheat code that can break down any defense. When he’s on, there is no defense except possibly a prayer to your deity of choice. It’s no coincidence that when Harden returned to form in February, Houston went 9-2 and started putting fear into the hearts of other contenders. A rough start to March arrived with a 1-4 record, including a 4-game losing streak in which everything looked bleak.

This is the Harden Experience, and it’s one we’ve seen time and time before. Houston puts all its chips on its top players and hopes that it gets enough contributions from the role players to win. Harden is Houston’s best player, so he touches the ball more than anyone else. It’s a strategy that has served the Rockets well in the Mike D’Antoni era, and hopefully we’ll get to see more success from the Beard when the season resumes.

The Pocket Rockets

While the recent results in March put a damper on the small ball Rockets, some of the most fun I’ve had watching the Rockets has been since Clint Capela’s injury when Houston first started experimenting with a five-out offense. The trade itself completed Houston’s transformation, bringing in Robert Covington to serve as the Trevor Ariza replacement that the Rockets have sorely lacked since Ariza signed with the Suns two summers ago.

While Covington specifically has been a joy to watch, getting to really focus on P.J. Tucker’s contributions on defense has also been a benefit of the move. Both RoCo and Tucker can guard any position, and their ability to switch is what makes the Pocket Rockets work as a unit.

Danuel House Jr. and Austin Rivers have also had moments where they’ve shone, especially Rivers who is much more confident in his ability to drive these days now that there isn’t always a shot-blocker near the rim.

The experiment still has some rough edges and it probably won’t be fully realized until next season when Houston can set up their entire game plan around it, but it’s been really intriguing to see a brand new idea in action.

Things I Don’t Miss

Mike D’Antoni avoiding timeouts like he’s a 5-year-old near vegetables

The few times that D’Antoni has called a timeout to stop momentum, it hasn’t worked. So I understand his reluctance to waste a valuable resource for no reason. However, the number of times that Houston has blown double digit leads in two minutes this season has been mind-boggling, and a few more timeouts could help the situation.

But it wouldn’t hurt MDA to take a page out of Gregg Popovich’s handbook and call timeouts any time he doesn’t like what he’s seeing. Sure, that means there will be games where he runs out of timeouts early, but most of the time he still has them because his team has grabbed the game back by taking a moment to compose themselves during the timeout.

Seriously Mike, just call a timeout when the other team goes on an 8-0 run. Please.

The media crapping on the Rockets

The COVID-19 situation had to be hell for ESPN and Bleacher Report, because their nightly tweets bashing James Harden and the Rockets came to a grinding halt. What will they do for cheap clicks now?

In that way, the hiatus has been a blessing. I love the Rockets and defend them as if they were my own child. It’s exhausting. Not only does the media insist on telling you that they do not like Rockets or the way they play, but they insist on reminding you of their beliefs every time the Rockets are on television. Sometimes it’s easy to ignore, like a single raindrop. But when the torrent starts, it’s infuriating to see people take something you love and reduce it to “I hate their style.” Narrative usually wins in the NBA, which makes these tedious arguments take on significant importance.

The mental health break from people who don’t ever actually watch the Rockets yet continuously crap on them has been a welcome reprieve.

Don’t get me wrong though. I’m sharpening the blades as we speak. When the NBA returns, my knives, like those of a Rian Johnson movie, will be out.

Buzzer beaters

Seriously, I hate buzzer beaters now. Eric Gordon hit one a couple of years ago. Since then, it’s been all heartbreak when it comes to buzzer beaters. Houston has lost on two ridiculous heaves this year, and were taken to overtime on a crazy sequence in Boston on another.

My PTSD was only starting to recover from Damian Lillard’s series-winning buzzer beater, if only because Lillard’s and Kawhi Leonard’s series-winning buzzer beaters last year were populating the NBA commercials instead of the 2014 one that broke my heart.

I’m hoping the hiatus can remove the bad juju that’s clearly pervading the Rockets when it comes to buzzer beaters. My sanity would appreciate the change.

So TDS, what do you miss about the season? What do you not miss? Let me know in the comments. And please stay safe. We’re going to need all of you when the hiatus ends.