In the End, the Rockets Were Never As Good As the Warriors

Rockets GM Daryl Morey has tried everything to make the Rockets the equal of the Warriors.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey has tried everything to make the Rockets the equal of the Warriors. Photo by Jeff Balke
Phil Mickelson had Tiger Woods. Andy Roddick had Roger Federer.

Sometimes, your best isn't good enough because an all-time great is in your way.

Such is the Rockets in the era of the Golden State Warriors.

It has been the stated goal of GM Daryl Morey and others within the Rockets organization to be better than the Warriors. Everything was building toward them surrounding their star James Harden with a team that could not only compete with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, but beat them in a seven-game series.

After their loss in the Western Conference semifinals last weekend, it's clear they failed.

This season appeared to be perhaps slightly different. After falling in seven games last year, thanks in large part to an injured Chris Paul, the Rockets stumbled out of the gate. Everything they did to vaunt themselves to a position of strength in the offseason failed, often in spectacular fashion — remember Carmelo Anthony?

But, by the All-Star break, things were beginning to trend in the right direction. Clint Capela, having lost a month to a torn ligament in his thumb, returned as did a healthy Paul and the team started to win. They were the third best defense in the league the second half of the season and were peaking right as the playoffs arrived.

Then, they lost the last game of the year and dropped all the way to fourth place in the conference standings from second. That meant a likely meeting with the Warriors in round two. Still, as good as they had been and the ability to match up with Golden State's smaller "Hamptons Five" lineup, never mind the deeper bench, the Rockets appeared to be ready to make the leap.

In the end, the problem was a startling drop off by a pair of starters and the Warriors exploitation of one of the Rockets big weaknesses.

Despite losing in six games, the bench and, more importantly, the secondary players for the Rockets had a significant impact. It could be argued that their best four players in this series were Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Paul, with Paul an unfortunately distant fourth. But even without Durant, lost in game five to a calf strain, the Warriors best four was simply better. And when you consider those four include Curry, Thompson and Green, among one of the best "big threes" in all of basketball the last five years, that's a pretty wide margin.

Then there is the downturn of Paul and Capela. The Rockets center has long struggled against smaller, athletic big men. He thrives against the traditional centers, but quick, shorter players often give Capela fits. That was definitely the case in this series.

And Paul has been showing wear all season long. His first step isn't as quick and his shot has been off. Is he in decline or injured or dealing with a bad season? We don't know, but his struggles in this series is perhaps the biggest single story, particularly considering the irony that he was lost in game five last year and Durant was injured in game five this year.

In the end, it's easy for fans to forget that teams don't play against themselves. There are other jerseys on the floor, filled with some of the best basketball talent on the planet. When four of the world's best happen to play for the same team, it's just hard to beat.

The Rockets shouldn't be faulted for their efforts. The reversal from the off-season disaster to the mid-season miracles was nothing short of remarkable. And they banked on Harden while managing to fill the roster around him with players that would complement the Beard.

That it hasn't been enough is only unfortunate because fans want more. The Rockets want more. Then again, so has every other team in the NBA and for three of the last four seasons, the Warriors have been in the way, exactly as they are again in 2019.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke