The Houston Rockets Lost, But Basketball Won

Alex Bab

On Friday, the Houston Rockets lost game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals to be eliminated from the playoffs. It was the fourth time in the last five seasons that the Rockets have been sent golfing by the Golden State Warriors. Houston now faces many questions about their direction for the future.

Much has been made of the many things the Rockets had going in their favor in game 6. They were at home. The Warriors were without Kevin Durant, arguably the best basketball player on the planet right now. Steph Curry had zero points at halftime.

Despite all of that, the Rockets still lost. Curry exploded in the second half for 33 points, Klay Thompson hit a dagger three late in the fourth quarter and that was that.

All of this has been covered thoroughly since Friday. The more important thing now is the message sent by the NBA in terms of the Rockets’ style of play.

We all know that James Harden has always gotten preferential calls from the referees. It’s why he has led the league in free throw attempts for several seasons running. Personally, I don’t like it: he kicks his legs out on threes to manufacture contact. He hooks his defenders arm during his eurostep drives create the illusion of a reach in foul.

He’s crafty, pushing the limits of the rules. For the most part he has been highly successful with it. In the regular season. As Harden and the Rockets found out yet again, the playoffs are not the regular season.

Harden is the worst offender on the Rockets in this regard but far from the only one. Chris Paul’s flopping and begging for whistles has become exponentially worse since his arrival in Houston two years ago. Eric Gordon is constantly pleading for calls. And so on and so on.

At this point, we can’t solely blame the players. This seems to be the Rockets’ actual game plan. Threes and fouls: no post game, no pick and roll designed to attack the basket, just pick and roll to get a preferred defender matched up on Harden.

They’ve fully bought into manufacturing the easiest possible way to a title by not playing basketball but rather by trying to win free throw shooting contests. Whether this is coming from Mike D’Antoni or General Manager/analytics guru Daryl Morey is unclear.

What was resoundingly clear was that the NBA took a stand and said “you are not earning a championship at the free throw line.”

Early on during game 6 I texted a friend that I liked the way the refs were calling the game. They called Chris Paul for an offensive foul when he tried to create contact and then flop. A few possessions later he did the same thing, earning a no-call and turning the ball over.

Rocket fans on social media were immediately calling foul on these calls. This is the mentality of the Rockets, mirrored in their fan base. A “fairly officiated game” in Houstons’ world view is that it is only fairly officiated if they get more foul calls then you do.

True basketball fans hate this. Rockets fans, if their being honest with themselves, hate it too. They just won’t voice it.

All of this is to point out how this mentality is why the Rockets lost game 6. There was one particular play that sums up their mentality and that of James Harden.

With a few minutes to go, the Warriors had a 102-100 lead amidst a wave of Curry heroics. Off a made basket, Harden was bringing the ball across mid court. Draymond Green was running past Harden to get back on defense. Green made a cursory attempt to reach in and put a little pressure on Harden. Harden threw his right arm out to push off Green and create contact. 

The whistle blew. I was ready to throw my remote through the TV if Harden got two free throws for that.

Instead, it was Harden called for the offensive foul and I felt the basketball gods smiling down upon us.

Amidst Harden’s regular season offensive onslaught, the media made many hyperbolic statements. Due to Harden’s technical position and offensive talent, comparisons were made to the two greatest shooting guards to ever play the game: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

That play towards the end of game 6 should solidify that Harden is not even close to the same level as either of them. He isn’t even in the same building.

Take out the obvious differences (Jordan and Bryant were elite defenders their entire careers and have a combined 11 championships) and just imagine either of them in that exact same situation. Neither would have ever looked for a ref to bail them out at winning time.

No, they would’ve put their heads down, attacked the basket and earned a foul. Or finish at the rim and get the foul. Or hit a dagger pull up mid range shot. But try to manufacture a cheap foul? Never.

That’s not to say neither either flopped, or gamed the refs a bit. That’s part of being crafty. However, come winning time, they both trusted their supreme talent to win games. They would never leave it in an official’s hands.

That play sums up all the questions the Rockets’s need to ask themselves going forward. Can you win at the free throw line? All the evidence suggests no. Can you win with Mike D’Antoni as your head coach? Again, look at the evidence.

But most importantly, can you win with James Harden as your star player as Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta guaranteed post game?

That question depends on the answer to following question: Is Harden afraid of greatness? Because with a two point disadvantage, at home, facing elimination, in crunch time, he got his opportunity to seize it. Instead he tried to game the refs one last time and paid for it. Live by the whistle, die by the whistle.

But if James Harden ever adopted the Mamba Mentality? As a basketball fan, that would be something special. I hope we get to see it one day.

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