“This One Hurts”: The Rockets Wanted to “Run it Back” But Came Up Short Yet Again

The 2018 Rockets had the Golden State Warriors on the ropes, up 3-2 with a 15 point lead in both Game 6 and Game 7, but choked away the series. The narrative surrounding the series was if Chris Paul had not gotten injured then the Rockets would have put the Warriors away in Game 6. Fine I will accept that narrative even though the Rockets did themselves no favors by missing 27 straight three pointers in Game 7. Anyway fast forward to this season and the Rockets were obsessed with “running it back” as they felt like they were robbed of a chance to knock off the champions last season. Well Clint Capela and the rest of the Rockets got their wish, and then some with this semifinals matchup with the Warriors.

The Stage is Set

Durant Realizing Right Calf Injury in Game 5

Series tied 2-2, and the Rockets have all the momentum in the third quarter after evaporating the Warriors huge first half lead. Steph Curry shooting slump was still a thing, and came off one of the more embarrassing moments of his career in Game 4 with the missed layup. The Warriors only hope was Kevin Durant to yet again drop a 40 plus point game, something he had been doing since the playoffs started. Then the potential series altering play happened, Durant hits a jump shot on the baseline takes a step and looks back at his leg as if he were kicked before grabbing his right leg and making his way to the locker room walking gingerly on that right foot. We later found out the diagnoses was a strained right calf injury, knocking him out for the rest of the series. This was James Harden, Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets chance to finally overcome the Warriors and put an end to the their dominance.

Opportunity For James Harden To Prove Himself

James Harden and Eric Gordon

The second half, without Durant for the entire 4th Quarter in a close game was the ideal time for MVP James Harden to shake his past playoff woes and break through the narrative that he is nothing more than a regular season player. He could have broke the shackles of his finals meltdown back in 2012 as a member of the OKC Thunder against the Miami Heat, or the past playoff woes against the Spurs, Blazers and Warriors. With Durant out with his injured right calf, Harden had to make his presence felt as the best player in the series by taking complete control in closing out Game 5, and setting the tone for Game 6.

However that is not what happened. Harden, the leagues leading scorer had just 5 points in the 4th quarter, and often went possessions without handling the ball, let alone take a shot. It had shades of Lebron James 2011 Finals, Harden just disappeared when it mattered most, which is what is most concerning to me. If Harden would have been aggressive, taking shots and getting to the rim but just missing, it would be one thing. But for Harden to come out without a sense of urgency to go for the kill on the weakened prey, is something we never see from a player of Harden’s level. The leagues most aggressive scorer just took a back seat to 6th man Eric Gordon, while Steph Curry turned back the clock to remind everyone he is still that baby face assassin. Harden and the rest of his team let Game 5 and eventually Game 6 get away from them.

Where Was CP3 All Series?

Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul sits on the court following a play during the second half in Game 6 of the team’s second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Golden State Warriors, Friday, May 10, 2019, in Houston. Golden State won 118-113, winning the series. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

James Harden is going to catch the most heat for the Rockets failing to beat a KD-less Warriors since he is the best player on the team, but we cannot let Chris Paul off the hook for not showing up in the series. Paul, the future hall of fame point guard played some of his worst basketball of his career in this series. To be completely honest, Paul really only showed up for Game 6 which proved to be a little too late. Here is CP3 stat line game by game for this series

Game 1: 17 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists

Game 2: 18 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists

Game 3: 14 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists

Game 4: 13 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists

Game 5: 11 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists

Game 6: 27 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists

If the Rockets were ever going to win this series, Paul would have had more games resembling Game 6 where he scored 20 plus points. For him to have only one such game in the series is embarrassing and makes you question if the milage on his body is catching up to him.

Where Does Houston Go From Here?

Chris Paul and James Harden During National Anthem


GM Darryl Morey is one of the best executives the league who is obsessed with beating the Warriors and ultimately reaching the Finals, but with the current roster construction, there is limited amount of maneuvers to be made to improve the team. The Rockets are going to have to “run it back” once again with the core of this team. James Harden locked in on a max, and well deserved as a top player in the league is not the issue, however his running mate is. Paying Chris Paul $124 million dollars for the next 3 years is arguably the worst contract in the league and will greatly hinder the Rockets chances of finding Harden a second star player to run with in his prime while Paul diminishes.

When you take a deep look into the Rockets supporting cast, you realize two things, it is an aging roster and there is not much flexibility to improve it. P.J Tucker, who’s a hell of a defender, will be 35 next season; Eric Gordon, the spark plug off the bench, will be 32; NeNe who is their most productive and trusted big-man off the bench is going on 37 years of age. The issue is the Rockets will have to be very creative on finding cheap veterans to come in at a league minimum in hopes they can join the already aging roster and give them a boost.

If the Rockets decide to “run it back” once again, maybe this time they don’t have to worry about the Golden State Warriors as we know them. It is completely possible 2/3 of the Warriors free agents of Durant, Thompson and Cousins leave this free agency. Let’s say Durant goes East and Boogie Cousins signs elsewhere, the Rockets have to like their chances at the Splash Brothers and Draymond Green in a best of 7 series a year from now. However, we’ve seen how quickly the landscape of the NBA changes year to year, and sitting back, being patient often leaves you in the dust. If that happens, the Rockets could find themselves in a heap of trouble for the next few seasons, potentially wasting prime Harden on a bunch of semi finals exits.

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