- James Harden and the Rockets' current formula will not be as successful as they face more difficult Western opponents than the Jazz.
There were a few moments during the Rockets’ 100–93 win over the Jazz on Wednesday when it looked like the series—which ended 4–1 in Houston’s favor—could somehow end up going seven games. Utah was finally looking more like the team it was during the regular season, and James Harden seemed to be struggling as the Jazz grew comfortable with their unorthodox defensive scheme tailormade to slow him down. Utah was in position late to steal Game 5, then take the series home where they’ve already won once. Of course, eventually Harden and the Rockets made enough winning plays down the stretch, while the Jazz countered with mistakes, and Houston secured its place in the second round, where an all-but-official rematch with the Warriors awaits.
The Rockets, however, can’t afford to put forth the same effort against Golden State than they did against the Jazz and expect to come out on top. Houston looked sloppy for large periods of the last three games of the first round, and the Warriors won’t be as forgiving as an offensively limited Utah squad. A series win is a series win, but the Rockets haven’t necessarily been an inspiring bunch over the last 12 quarters.
For Harden, a Golden State rematch is another opportunity to elevate his legacy. The Beard has a chance to win his second straight MVP this year, but he’s arguably still not a top-three player in the league. Harden can put some of that talk to rest by solving the Warriors problem the rest of the league seems to be eagerly waiting out. Last year’s series ended in disaster as Houston clanked its way to an embarrassing defeat in Game 7. While Harden has largely shifted the conversation about his individual playoff performances, he’s also yet to have a signature series on a grand stage. Harden’s bouts of inefficiency against Utah were concerning considering his past, but it would be fair for him to write off the volume of misses due to looking ahead.
If the Rockets have Finals aspirations, though, then all systems need to be a go by the time the second round tips. Harden can’t afford to spot his opponent whole halves while he tries to find his rhythm. Chris Paul can’t only wait until the fourth quarter to look like his superstar self. And Houston can’t keep turning the ball over and more or less hope the other team continues to do the same.
There are still reasons to believe the Rockets are the league’s best chance at taking down the Warriors. After all, Houston still defeated the Jazz in only five games. And the defense has come a long way since its struggles in the fall. But last year’s team had a singular focus from the start of the regular season, winning over 60 games and dominating throughout. The 2019 unit has been leakier, rougher around the edges, and a lot more reliant on Harden to bail them out. That formula will not be as successful as the difficulty in the West intensifies.
Houston certainly isn’t in dire straits, and perhaps boredom played the biggest role in its waning attention to detail over the last few games of the first round. Now, the warmup is over. The Rockets have the rematch they’ve probably wanted since the night all their threes kept rimming out nearly a year ago. Unlike say, the 2014 Spurs, Houston hasn’t always looked like a team uncompromisingly desperate to reclaim what was taken from them. The Rockets will need to embody more of an attitude like that one if they want to move on beyond the second round.