Monday, May 28, 2018

The Golden Hurdle

We are mere hours away from one of the most important games of the season for the Houston Rockets and their fanbase at the Toyota Center. Some may mention legacy talk for Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and Chris Paul. The outcome will not only a measuring stick on viewing this season as a success/failure for most, but a game that has Rockets nation the closest they’ve ever been to an NBA Finals since they won two back-to-back in 1994 and 1995. Along the way, they’ve suffered more than a few heartbreaks, and I’m not sure how much more the loyal Houstonians can take after such a memorable season so far as the number one seed with homecourt advantage.

Before we go any further, it must be noted that Chris Paul’s availability for Game 7 are uncertain. He injured his hamstring towards the end of Game 5 and sat out Game 6. The Rockets started hot but faded in the second half- and even at seventy-five to eighty percent, CP3 would be a welcomed addition to help take some ball-handling responsibilities from James Harden. But despite whether Paul plays or not, the Rockets are in a must-win situation with Golden State as their kryptonite, and Harden must be Superman in order for Houston to move on. It was also announced Andrew Iguodala is out for the third straight game which must have been a relief for the city of Houston.

The post-championship Rockets have always seemed like the bridesmaid and never the bride, but they may have been upgraded to maid-of-honor with their effort so far this series. The late nineties saw a pseudo super team form when Charles Barkley joined Clyde Drexler and Hakeem and helped lead them to a 57-25 record. They would fall to a John Stockton buzzer beater in the Western Conference Finals.

The next season, Houston struggled to a 41-41 record but still made the playoffs. Again, the Jazz would eliminate them in the first round. The next offseason saw them add Scottie Pippen in a sign-and-trade, while new faces like Bryce Drew, Cuttino Mobley and Michael Dickerson joined the fold. They’d finish the strikeout-shortened season 31-19. Maybe it was not enough time to completely gel, maybe it was age, maybe it was Maybelline- but they would once again fall in the first round to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The next era in Houston saw them trade for former Maryland Terrapin Steve Francis. While a dynamic talent who would find chemistry with Mobley, those years were a rollercoaster with little to show for it: 34-48, 45-37, 28-54, 43-39, 45-37. They would only make the playoffs once (losing 4-1 to the dynastic Lakers), draft Yao Ming with the top pick in 2002 and Rudy Tomjanovich would retire after 02-03 as Jeff Van Gundy would take over. JVG would get one year with Steve as the cornerstone until they included him in a trade that would bring over Tracy McGrady.

T-Mac and Yao had all sorts of expectations, and people made comparisons to Shaq and Kobe, whether realistically or not. Once you get an elite scorer like T-Mac and one of the best-shooting big men, minds will wander. The Rockets surprised everyone when they jumped out to a 2-0 series lead versus the favorite Dallas Mavericks in 2005, but squandered the series and lost 4-3 (including a 40 point loss in Game 7).

The two would never realize their potential as they would trade time with multiple injuries before McGrady would be traded in 2010, and Yao would retire in 2011. The Rockets franchise was in a state of disarray, with no clear identity.

The 2011-2012 Rockets were young and without a franchise piece, yet still managed a respectable 34-32 record in a shortened season thanks to Chandler Parsons, Goran Dragic and Kyle Lowry. The big score wouldn’t happen until the next offseason when James Harden was acquired from the Thunder in a move that shocked the league. Some doubted if he could develop into an elite cornerstone, but he has since silenced those doubts over the past five seasons. His first season saw him carry a mashed-up collection of talent to a 45-37 record and an eight seed before falling to the Thunder 4-2 in the playoffs. While not an ideal ending, it was progress and Daryl Morey looked smarter by the day.  

The next big era would join Dwight Howard with Harden. Like Yao/T-Mac before them, they had lofty expectations from the start as a classic center/guard combo. While the expectations were there, the results were mixed. The two would end up on the wrong end of another buzzer-beater courtesy of Damian Lillard.

The duo would create much tension, and never find any success outside of an upset of the then Chris Paul-led Clippers that led to a WCF appearance in 2015 as a massive underdog to the Warriors championship team. They would lose 4-1.

Dwight would spend one more year with Houston before the tension was insurmountable. They ended the 2015-2016 season with a 4-1 loss to Golden State again.

Harden would get Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson the next season, and while they saw semblances of success- they were never viewed as serious contenders. The hardest pillow to swallow for the franchise came in last year’s playoffs when they were blown out by 39 at home to a Spurs team without Kawhi Leonard or Tony Parker.

With all the ups and downs, fans continue to buy in to the Rockets and their potential. This season saw them prove a lot of doubters wrong on the way to 65 wins, a potential NBA MVP and multiple statistical and historical records. Houston was down after Game 6 but not out and are in a “Rockets versus the world” kind of mode with doubters a plenty.

Resilience and the ability to answer adversity has become a hallmark of this team. They have answered every loss this postseason with a counter punch of their own, and I don’t see why they can’t do the same at home. Houston is a proud and strong city, and the Rockets should go in with plenty of confidence as they’ve been able to do what no other team in this Warriors championship era has: challenge them and put doubt in their heads.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron. 

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