The Houston Rockets Have to Grow up to Be Winners
Nine-tenths of a second.
Leading 98-96 after a Chandler Parsons layup, nine-tenths of a second was all the Houston Rockets had to spin off of the clock against the Portland Trail Blazers at the end of Game 6 of their opening-round playoff series. Do that, and it would be back to Houston for Game 7. From there, momentum, karma and 20,000 rabid Rockets fans would take care of the rest. On to the next round and San Antonio they would go.
One stop, one play.
Nine-tenths of a second never took so long.
In the NBA, months of preparation and practice boil down to a few moments. This was one of those moments. "No three-pointers," head coach Kevin McHale reinforced, as they broke the huddle. That was the only thing that could end the series, a three-pointer.
As Portland's Nicolas Batum prepared to inbound the ball, it was obvious there was only one place on the floor that the Blazers could get a clean look at a winning shot. Naturally, this Rockets team, which treated prosperity as if it had herpes all series long, left that spot wide open.
Point guard Damian Lillard, who was shooting roughly 500 percent from the floor that night, sprinted to that spot. Desperately, Parsons chased him. Lillard caught the ball clean, elevated and launched a three-pointer.
Every Houston sports fan knew what was about to happen the second the ball left Lillard's hand, because we all lived through 35-3 in Buffalo in 1993 and we all had our hearts torn out by John Stockton in 1997.
This was Stockton 2.0, 17 years later, only with Lillard in charge of the guillotine. In Game of Thrones parlance, Red Nation was about to become Red Wedding. The only things missing were "The Rains of Castamere" playing over the loudspeaker and Walder Frey cackling at Kevin McHale from a luxury suite.
Three-pointer, good. 99-98, Portland. Game over. Season over.
In nine-tenths of a second.
How did this happen?
Lillard's game-winning shot, in many ways, encapsulated the flaws in this season's Rockets team, a team with championship aspirations.
"I keep thinking: What could we have done differently? Why didn't I block him and not let him come off? Why didn't we switch? Why didn't we have the guy on the ball facing the other way?" Parsons winced when asked about that final play of Game 6.
Parsons's words allude to teamwide issues of focus, which manifested themselves at literally the worst time at the defensive end.
When asked about the entirety of the season, James Harden said, "It was our first year together, so guys got attitudes or faded out a little bit throughout the entire season, whereas next year we can't have those lapses. We've got to be together no matter what — playing bad, not shooting the ball well, individually — we've got to just stick together and do it together."
Harden's macro answer about why this team didn't reach its general manager's stated goal (a Western Conference Finals berth) is just a broader version of Parsons's answer about the final play.
For all the hoarding, dumping, selling and international travel that Daryl Morey has endured in constructing this roster, miraculously acquiring two superstar-level talents (Harden and center Dwight Howard) without the benefit of a trip to the top of the NBA draft, there are no analytics to measure immaturity.
The Houston Rockets lack maturity, and they let it kill them.
When Howard was lured to Houston last summer to sign a four-year contract for nearly $90 million, the heavy involvement of Harden and Parsons in the recruiting effort made it appear that chemistry would be as big a factor as talent in the success of this team, a band of brothers in their twenties all headed down the highway toward title gold together.
While everyone still appears to be on the same page, it's obvious from the exit interviews conducted on May 5 with all three featured Rockets that the grind of the season splashed a dose of reality on the frat party from last July.
"We are close off the court, but we have to be that way when we're on the floor at all times. We've got to have each other's back," said Howard. "Going back and watching the film and how that Portland team was, it's something that [our] guys can learn from. [The Blazers] were together: Their bench, their coaching staff, every play, they looked like they were all in it."
Harden's thoughts were more direct: "We can't allow those things to happen. For both [himself and Howard], it was the same: We kind of got upset when things weren't going that well, but we've got to realize it's not about each individual; it's about the team. Me and Dwight have to be better about that as well."
"We can't have any hidden agendas. We have to go out there and everyone has to have the same goals," Parsons emphasized.
While the mutual respect and friendship are both still there, clearly last July's honeymoon is officially over.
There's now a job to do.
For Morey, moves like the Harden trade and the signing of Howard came about through a combination of timing, preparedness and a little bit of luck. He was positioned, flush with assets, to pounce when Oklahoma City called him about a deal for Harden. He had been positioning himself to sign Howard for about the past four years.
The Rockets' next roster move (or set of roster moves) will be considerably more difficult.
For the first time as general manager of the Rockets, Morey has some self-inflicted constraints that he will need to deal with this off-season. The contracts of Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, each containing a final season's salary in 2014-2015 of $15 million, must be dealt with in order to make the next big move.
At the time Lin and Asik were signed as restricted free agents in 2012, those "poison-pill" seasons, on the scale of issues for this team, seemed like nonstarters. Now Asik and Lin themselves are literally nonstarters. Trading both of them is achievable, but doing it without including Parsons and his bargain-basement contract as a sweetener may be tricky.
And if you're Morey, when do you make the next big move? Is it Carmelo Anthony this off-season? Kevin Love in 2015? Dwight Howard is not getting any younger.
"We can't take anything for granted. Time is very valuable. You have to value your career, and I value mine. I want to win," Howard reflected.
In the end, though, this group and any Rockets group constructed in the future will go as far as Harden will take them, a scary proposition if you focused on Harden's defensive effort throughout the season.
"I have to emerge. I have to grow and take another step. It's a matter of will and focusing on that end as well. Focus is a major part of the game. Talent-wise, I'm there, but just focusing on the majority of the game (needs to improve)," Harden acknowledged.
He is absolutely right. James Harden is a sublime talent, but until he starts playing defense, he's basically an ultra-souped-up version of Kevin Martin.
Harden finished fifth in the Most Valuable Player balloting, and in the regular season was a transcendent scorer. Unfortunately, until he homes in on his conditioning and his effort at both ends of the floor, Harden will be a regular-season Tarzan and a postseason Jane.
For all the names on Morey's big board in his office, all the targets for trades and draft picks, the one thing that he must have in order for this team to win a title is something no amount of cap space or expiring contracts can acquire.
It's James Harden's desire to be great, his thirst to be a champion. If the Rockets (and Harden) don't have that, then nothing else matters.
For this group, salvation lies within.
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