THEY ‘wanted‘ the Warriors. For years, Houston has been trying to construct a team that could combat the best team in the NBA and they entered this series with Golden State as the sexy upset pick in Round 2. However, even with all the stars aligning; a healthy Chris Paul, an early postseason injury ruling out DeMarcus Cousins and facing a Durant-less Dub Nation after winning Game 5 on the road, Houston failed, losing the series in six games. After falling short of their goal to win a championship yet again, the Rockets are facing another long, offseason left wondering what could have been.
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LET’S start with the big talking point from the Rockets series loss, James Harden. I’ll admit I’ve been a bit of a Harden apologist in recent times, with the MVP candidate arguably the best offensive player in the world. However, for whatever reason, he tends to go missing when the lights are the brightest in the playoffs and 2019 was a similar scenario. He still poured in plenty of points don’t get me wrong, but the Rockets’ success starts and ends with their go-to guy.
IN the regular season, Harden was the second-best late scorer in the league, averaging 8.3 points in the 4th with 41.9/33.5/88.0 shooting splits. In 11 playoff games this year, those numbers were similar, with Harden posting 7.9 points on average in the fourth, but his 17.2 3P% was a glaring weakness. In the last three playoffs, over a 39 game stretch, Harden has made just 31.0% of his 3-point attempts, way down from his regular season average over the same time span of 36.1%. Teams have figured out how to nullify Harden in the playoffs as things slow down and defenses key in, which doesn’t bode well for his quest to be the best player on a championship team.
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THOSE fancy numbers basically state that Harden isn’t as efficient when the playoffs annually role around. Even his ability to get to the free throw line dips, with Harden’s free throw rate down in each of the last five postseason’s compared to his regular season stats. A decrease in production and efficiency coupled with an increase in minutes isn’t the desired recipe for a team’s best player.
CHRIS Paul is in a similar boat, with his performance this playoffs far from inspiring. He had a stellar Game 6, doing his best to will Houston to a W, but ultimately, he’s starting to look very 34 years old. CP3 did well to look after his body throughout the regular season and time his run for the postseason, but his body isn’t what it once was and his lack of athleticism is hampering his play and the team’s title aspirations. Much like Harden, Paul’s 3-point shooting (17-63 at 27.0%) turned out to be a glaring weakness over 11 games. After nailing 35.8% of his attempts int he regular season and 37.0% for his career, Houston can’t afford to have both Paul AND Harden failing to fire from downtown.
IT wasn’t just their perimeter players who malfunctioned with big man Clint Capela not living up to his new hefty contract. Battling against the likes of Andrew Bogut and Kevon Looney should have seen Capela become a huge X-factor for Houston, and instead, all of his numbers dipped as he became almost unplayable. His field goal percentage (64.8%) was the second highest in the league over the regular season yet in the playoffs his percentage took a hit, canning 55.6% of his shots. While that’s still a decent mark for a big man, Capela let an opportunity to stamp his authority on the series slip through his fingers. Sound familiar?
AS much as I’ve blamed the players for their shortcomings this postseason, Mike D’Antoni deserves his fair share of criticism as well. The NBA playoffs are all about making adjustments on a game to game basis and while combatting the Warriors is a near impossible task, D’Antoni and his staff didn’t make any significant changes to their game plan. Living and dying by the three is all well and good, but when the going gets tough, Houston’s head man needed to have a Plan B, C & even D to throw at Golden State and ultimately, he didn’t. Darryl Morey constructed the roster D’Antoni wanted to facilitate his style, but there were still adjustments that could have made to give them a better chance of pulling off the upset.
AFTER crapping on the Rockets for six or so paragraphs it is worth pointing out that they have fallen to Golden State in four of the last five seasons. Only one team has managed to beat the Warriors in the playoffs since 2014-15, with Dub Nation claiming 17 series wins in 18 tires. Beating them isn’t an easy task, but Houston had their best chance in recent memory to dethrone the league’s champions, and they blew it. Does it mean they need to blow up their current team? Absolutely not, Portland is a good example of what can happen when you keep your stars together and persist through adversity, but if the Rockets are going to make the most of their postseason runs, they need to come back with an alternative plan when Harden’s “iso-hero ball” fails.
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DEEP, successful postseason runs aren’t usually associated with James Harden, Chris Paul and Mike D’Antoni and the clock is certainly ticking if they want to pull off the ultimate feat and bring a title to Houston. The Rockets are entering the offseason with a bad taste in their mouths yet again with their stars running out of time to change their postseason reputations. There’s nothing Harden and Paul can do to alter the results of the past, but if they fall short again in 2019-20, their legacies will be tainted beyond repair.
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