HOUSTON — From the moment the Houston Rockets broke training camp in late September, one of the primary goals had been to earn a playoff rematch of last season’s Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors.
So, mission accomplished?
Not quite. Undoubtedly, the Rockets envisioned themselves closer to the team they were in 2014-15 (56-26 overall, No. 2 seed) than the mediocre, 41-41 squad that had to win its final three games this week just to qualify for the playoffs as the eighth and final seed.
“We wanted to make the playoffs,” said star guard James Harden, who finished 2015-16 as only the fourth player in NBA history to average at least 29 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds per game over an entire season. (The others were Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Oscar Robertson.)
“We didn’t want to go home,” Harden added after the 116-81 home win over the Sacramento Kings in Houston’s regular-season finale. “We got some big wins. Even though the Kings were short-handed, we went out there and took care of business.
“A lot of people wrote us off and thought we weren’t going to make the playoffs. Well, here we are.”
Their reward? Starting Saturday afternoon, the Rockets will open a seven-game series in Golden State against a 73-9 Warriors squad that just finished off the winningest season in NBA history. It would be a mild upset for the Rockets to even steal a game or two from the defending champions, and winning four out of seven over the top seed would qualify as one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
However, the Rockets say they aren’t backing down from the challenge.
“With any situation any human being is in, when their back is against the wall, you’ll never know how strong you are until you have to be strong,” said point guard Patrick Beverley, who set a career high with 12 assists in Houston’s playoff-clinching win on Wednesday night. “That’s the position we were in, and it made us play some of the best basketball we’ve played all season.”
“We feel we can go all the way,” added veteran forward Josh Smith, who just rejoined the team’s regular rotation within the final week of the season.
HOW HOUSTON MATCHES UP
The irony of this pairing is that on paper, the 2015-16 Rockets would seem to match up better with the Warriors than the 2014-15 squad did.
What is often forgotten about the Houston-Golden State matchup in the 2015 Western Conference finals is that it wasn’t a blowout. While the Warriors did win the series, 4-1, four of the five games were competitive in the final quarter — and in Houston’s opening two losses at Oracle Arena, the Rockets had the ball in the final seconds with a chance to tie or win on both occasions.
Harden, in particular, was phenomenal — having posted averages of 28.4 points (46.7-percent from the field, 42.9-percent from three), 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game during the series.
But the Rockets still didn’t have quite enough to finish off the Warriors late.
On paper, Houston’s biggest deficiencies seemed to be poor defense at point guard and a lack of interior scoring on offense. With usual defensive pest Beverley out with a wrist injury, the Rockets turned to veterans Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni at the point — and league MVP Stephen Curry went on a scoring spree against the aging duo.
This season, Beverley is starting and healthy.
At power forward, Donatas Motiejunas’ absence due to back surgery meant the Rockets had to turn to Smith and Terrence Jones, and neither of those two could create offense on the low block the way Motiejunas did.
Like Beverley, Motiejunas is also now starting and healthy.
On paper, the pieces are there for the Rockets to give Golden State an even tougher test in 2015-16 than they did a year ago.
“It’s going to be fun,” Beverley said. “We understand it won’t be easy.”
“Nobody is picking us to do anything,” added Jason Terry, a former NBA champion and at 38 years old, the team’s elder statesman. “But I think we can do something special.”
WHERE THINGS WENT WRONG
Unfortunately for the Rockets, games aren’t played on paper. While the team entered the season with championship-contending expectations, the pieces never seemed to mesh anywhere close to as well as they did a season ago.
Ty Lawson was brought in as a sorely-needed secondary playmaker after Harden, but his play was so poor that the Rockets ultimately ended up releasing him via a buyout.
Dwight Howard’s role in the offense has steadily declined, as has his athleticism. Now 30 years old and in his 12th NBA season, the nights of vintage Howard have been fewer and farther between, and the big man’s average of 8.5 field-goal attempts per game is the lowest since his rookie season.
And while veterans Corey Brewer and Josh Smith were crucial spark plugs off Houston’s bench in 2014-15, their play has been significantly more erratic this season — possibly due to coaches around the league having more time to scout their roles in Houston and make further adjustments.
On the coaching side, Kevin McHale went from receiving Coach of the Year consideration a year ago to being fired after a 4-7 start. Interim replacement J.B. Bickerstaff has brought a sense of youthful energy and is well-respected in Houston’s locker room, but his results (37-34) with this season’s group are not appreciably better than McHale’s were. Before the trade deadline, Bickerstaff referred to his team as “broken”.
The upside is that Harden remains as dominant as ever, averaging 29.0 points, 7.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game while seemingly willing his Rockets to the playoffs down the stretch of the season. But the supporting cast has not lived up to their end of the bargain.
PLAYOFFS OVER DRAFT PICK?
Given those problems, many fans around Houston actually wanted Houston to miss the playoffs. If the Rockets had missed the postseason, they would have kept their first-round draft pick (likely No. 13 overall). However, because they made the playoffs, they lose the draft pick to Denver as part of general manager Daryl Morey’s ill-fated deal for Lawson.
That “tank” sentiment did not, however, make its way into Houston’s locker room.
“We can’t worry about the outside noise and the negativity,” Harden said. “Our focus is on the guys inside this locker room and going out and winning as many basketball games as we can.”
Harden remains one of the league’s most cut-throat competitors, and he would undoubtedly love another shot against Curry — the rival he battled with for MVP honors just one season ago.
Howard, meanwhile, will likely opt out of his contract after the season and enter free agency in July — and a strong showing against the loaded Warriors on the NBA’s biggest stage could go a long way toward landing him the type of long-term contract he desires. Howard was a dominant playoff performer during his first two seasons in Houston, so he may very well step up his game, again.
Besides individual motivations for the players and coaches and the sheer spirit of competition, there’s also the matter of the team’s perception. Assuming Howard opts out, the Rockets will be flush with cash in July’s free agency and aggressively pursuing top talents — including Harden’s former teammate, Kevin Durant.
In those free-agency pursuits, one of the main selling points by Houston is the team’s frequency of making the postseason. Indeed, they’ve now qualified for the Western playoffs in all four of Harden’s seasons in Houston.
If the Rockets had somehow missed the playoffs altogether, or perhaps even if they are swept in a series of embarrassing blowouts, it would be fair to wonder if top free agents might reject Houston on the basis of culture.
But if the Rockets can regroup and put forth a strong showing against the Warriors, the opportunity is there to reshape the narrative — even if they don’t pull off the all-time upset of taking four games.
“Obviously they’re playing well, but we are, too,” Harden said of the matchup with Golden State. “It’s going to be a great test for us, but we’re excited for the challenge.”
Barring a shocking series win, the Rockets are still expected to dramatically remake their roster over the summer. To that end, a late lottery pick (which would have been garnered by missing the playoffs) in the upcoming NBA Draft might seem helpful at first glance.
But from a practical standpoint, Houston has a much shorter-term focus. Harden’s contract expires in 2018, meaning the Rockets essentially have two more seasons after this one to put a contender around him and give him a compelling basketball reason to stay put in Houston. A late lottery pick would be unlikely to contribute so soon to that cause. Let’s not forget that Morey’s Rockets had similar picks for three straight years from 2010 until 2012, and the selections — Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris and Jeremy Lamb — were hardly franchise-changers.
As a result, the end game for these Rockets is two-fold. First, no matter how unlikely, they plan to give it their best shot against the Warriors in the first round to see if they can somehow salvage this underachieving 2015-16 campaign. Assuming they cannot, the next goal is to reshape the perception of the franchise to make it a more attractive destination come July.
It certainly is not the scenario Houston had planned on entering the season, but they now at least have a chance to take the uphill climb and advance closer to their long-term goal of building a contender. Missing the playoffs altogether would have made the hill to get there even steeper.
Ben DuBose is a veteran sports reporter who has followed the Houston Rockets and the NBA since Hakeem Olajuwon was Akeem Olajuwon. He writes for both SheridanHoops and ClutchFans, an independent Rockets blog. You can follow him on Twitter and listen to his Houston sports podcast.