It really seems like a long time ago that the Houston Rockets were good. It has, however, only been a year since their run past the Dallas Mavericks (4-1), the LA Clippers (4-3, coming back from 3-1 down) led them to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the Olajuwon era (they did make the West semi finals in 2009 behind Tracy McGrady and despite Yao Ming’s injury).
On May 27, 2015, the Houston Rockets season was ended by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. It wasn’t really all that close, either. The Rockets narrowly lost games 1 and 2, then were blown out in game 3 before they took game 4 to avoid a sweep but were ultimately closed out despite Dwight Howard’s monster 18/16 performance.
The two sides met in Houston in the second game of the regular season and the Warriors came out on top by 20, predictably led by Steph Curry with the unlikely figure of Montrezl Harrell leading the Rockets in scoring with 17. By year’s end and the second meeting of the teams, the Rockets were in a more familiar pattern with James Harden leading the scoring with 30 and Dwight Howard adding 21 and 13 rebounds and, unusually a joint-team-high five assists. This time Curry’s absence saw Klay Thompson step up, scoring 38, 6/11 from three.
This game left the Rockets two games under .500 and the Warriors somewhat better positioned at 30-2. This pattern continued throughout the season; as the Rockets lurched into the postseason, the Warriors cruised to an NBA-record 73 wins and eviscerated the Rockets in game 1, leading 33-15 at the end of the first quarter before closing out the game 104-78 with their bench enders on the court. Meanwhile, the Rockets starters all ended up with significant – on their +/- rating for the game. Of some significance was the ankle injury suffered by Steph Curry which would cause him to miss the next two games.
Game 2 was closer, perhaps it had to be, with the Warriors only winning by 9. James Harden stepped up for the Rockets, as he had done throughout the season once he managed to shake off the off-season rust that we can generously attribute to a summer ankle injury, or, if you prefer, to his odd decision to spend significant time with a Kardashian – a proven method of ruining one’s career/reputation/life – over the summer. Again, the Rockets were no match for the other “splash brother”, with Thompson scoring 34 and leading the Warriors to a less-comfortable 115-106 win,
With Curry again sitting, game 3 saw the Rockets win by a single point in a game where the Warriors were led by the unlikely figure of Marreese Speights. The Warriors starters combined to hit a single three before Curry’s return in game 4. During this game, Curry slipped on defense and limped off the court with what was later diagnosed as an MCL sprain. It was, however, the Rockets who struggled to cope with the situation, losing to a team that should have been shell-shocked by 27 points. The series ended abruptly with another blowout in game 5, with James Harden’s second 35-point performance of the series not even close to being enough to keep the Rockets in the series.
The Warriors won the series by an aggregate 550-456.
The Rockets must go now and figure out what the hell they are going to do with this roster. Their two superstars, James Harden, mere months from a legitimate MVP-caliber season, and Dwight Howard, while a shadow of his former self, still a forceful defensive presence with capability at the offensive end and likely to command a significant chunk of the offseason cap space that either the Rockets or another organization has to spare. The question facing the Rockets is whether or not Howard’s much publicized issues with James Harden can be overcome if they do decide, as they well might, that he remains their best option. Clint Capela is still a couple of years from really contributing and is, remarkably, even more of a free throw liability than Howard. Donatas Motiejunas undoubtedly has game, but has struggled to remain healthy with a significant back issue causing the Detroit Pistons to renege on their deadline day trade this year.
The Rockets will also need a new head coach, with J.B. Bickerstaff performing with some credit despite the odd circumstances he found himself in but nowhere near effectively enough to actually steer this ship back in the direction it needs to go. Getting in a man who can motivate James Harden like last season, not least on the defensive end where he has, once again, become a laughing stock, will be a top priority.
Meanwhile, the Warriors will hope that Curry can return during their series against the Portland Trailblazers. It seems likely that he will be back at some point during that series, but given the commanding nature of this victory, they will feel confident about their ability to see off many contenders in his absence.