NBA

Rockets in Familiar Position After Being Ousted by Lakers in Game 5: ‘It’s very, very frustrating’

The Lakers eliminated the Rockets from title contention on Saturday. Is Houston’s window closing?

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Lakers are going to the conference finals, which is where LeBron James pretty much always goes. In the last 14 seasons, James’ teams have made the conference finals 11 times. I’m sure there’s a hot take in there somewhere, something about how this proves he should have won more championships and set China straight, but let’s just agree that he is an absurdly great player who makes every team he plays on so much better. We’re lucky to watch him.

The Rockets are going home before the Finals, which is what they always do. They were good again. They were different again, and different is fun. There were even a few moments in this series when they looked like they might even have some answers for the Lakers, but those moments vanished quickly.

The teams split the first two games. With 10 minutes and one second left in Game 3, LeBron James hit a layup to give the Lakers a one-point lead. The Rockets never held the lead again, and to be clear here, I don’t mean they never held the lead in Game 3 again. They never led in any game again. That’s 106 minutes and one second of basketball. This series was not competitive.

Game 5 was a bust, but an oddly chippy one. The Lakers’ Dwight Howard and Houston’s Austin Rivers had an ongoing spat that ended with double technicals. More memorably, Russell Westbrook got Rajon Rondo’s brother William ejected:

“Who you talking to? Who you talking to?” Westbrook said, before turning to the officials and asking “Who is that? Who is that?”

Westbrook would not stop until William Rondo was booted. But after the game, Westbrook bolted himself. He skipped the postgame handshake, which will make a great scene in the 10-part documentary on James someday, when somebody shows James the video of Westbrook leaving and LeBron spends the next 35 minutes defending him.

Westbrook was patient, polite and surprisingly verbose afterward. He said of William Rondo, “He started talking s— and I don’t play that game,” but he did not sound frustrated by it. He also did not sound like a man whose last best chance at a title just disappeared.

It sure looks like the Rockets’ window is closing, and it very well might be. But the view from the other of that window is brighter.

The Rockets have been in win-now mode for years, and the relentless doubling down has come at a price. They traded for Chris Paul to win immediately, but then they had to give him a huge contract or lose him. Then they traded him for Westbrook, but they had to give up draft picks and positioning to do that.

It would be very hard to argue that the Rockets are better positioned to win a championship than they were when last season ended. They have traded a bunch of draft capital, first for Westbrook and then when they packaged a first-rounder to deal Clint Capela and acquire Robert Covington. Covington is a good player, but he fell down the same sinkhole with his team this week.

So now the Rockets have no 2020 draft choices. They owe Harden, Westbrook, Covington and Eric Gordon more than $110 million next year; the pandemic has put all revenue and costs in question, but it’s hard to imagine how the finances will get will better for the Rockets. There are always small ways to improve a contending team—trades, buyouts, exceptions—and with coach Mike D’Antoni’s contract expiring, the Rockets might make a change there. But the Rockets’ best hope is that the team we saw in this series is not the best version of themselves.

Westbrook said he was in fantastic shape when he contracted COVID-19 and lost a few weeks this summer. Then he strained his right quadriceps and didn’t return until midway through the first round. Then Danuel House was ejected from the bubble for a protocol violation. The Rockets were never the same. It seems like correlation but Harden leans toward causation.

“It’s very, very frustrating,” Harden said.

Harden said the team just needs the right pieces, and he and Westbrook spoke confidently of the future. It will depend largely on Westbrook being at his best. Harden is a known quantity. As an entertainer, Harden is an acquired taste. He has also had some playoff clunkers that inevitably stuck to his reputation. But he is a phenomenal player, one of the few no-doubt MVP candidates in the league every year. He was not the reason the Rockets lost this series.

The Rockets were asked understandable questions about their extreme small-ball approach. D’Antoni pointed out that Golden State’s best lineups in recent years were small. Harden said unequivocally that it can work—and was, in fact, working. It’s not quite as revolutionary as it seems. Nobody else in the league has two players with the size and ability of James and Anthony Davis. Wings dominate the NBA.

There are no easy answers here. D’Antoni’s Rockets, like his Phoenix Suns of years ago, have been cast as a system failure when they lost largely because of timing. The 2017-18 Rockets nearly beat the Durant/Curry/Klay/Draymond Warriors. Those Rockets might have been better than any team in the league this year. But those Rockets are gone.

There are no easy answers. After the Rockets lost to the Warriors last year, Paul said the team had to “go to the drawing board,” but the team directed him to a drawing board in Oklahoma City. Owner Tilman Fertitta, who was under the impression he had anything to do with the team’s performance, talked tough: “I’m a fighter. That’s my culture, and I think the longer that I own this team, they’re going to pick up more of my culture …We’ll pick up a few Tilman-isms along the way in the next few years.”

James Harden does not need Tilman-isms. He does not need a traditional center and power forward and offensive sets from the 1990s. He needs Westbrook to be at his best, the pieces around him to work, and for the Clippers, Lakers, Mavericks and others to have problems of their own. You can see why Harden still believes. You can also understand why others do not.

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