LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Houston Rockets in the NBA bubble are a science experiment inside a science experiment, and the beaker just cracked. They did not just lose Game 4 to the Lakers; they lost Game 4 in the first half. They are now down 3-1 in the series, and they say it’s not over, which is true but begs the question: If it’s not over, why did they play like it was?
“Just a lack of … spirit,” coach Mike D’Antoni said afterward, in an empty gym adjacent to the mostly empty gym where the game was played. “Just seems like we got down, we lost our way a little bit.”
A lack of spirit, in what was close to a must-win playoff game …
“There is nothing we can do about it now,” James Harden said. “We just have to get ready for Game 5.”
These quotes read like ambivalence, followed by an effort that seemed indifferent. It is, of course, not that simple. There was some yelling in the Rockets’ locker room after the game, which is at least a signal this performance really annoyed some Rockets, and as D’Antoni said, “It’s not like you do it on purpose. We got down on ourselves a little bit.”
It was, depending on your perspective, either a terribly timed off night or an indictment of how the Rockets are built. Harden is unlike any star in the NBA, an isolation virtuoso with a few moves that are basically unstoppable. The Rockets, more than any team in recent memory, are constructed around their star’s gifts. The Lakers double-teamed Harden at every opportunity, leaving him two choices: force shots anyway, or pass and trust his teammates to take advantage.
Forcing shots would probably not work, and would lead to inevitable (and wrong) criticism that Harden is an overrated ball hog. Harden took just 11 shots (and 20 free throws) and had 10 assists.
D’Antoni was pleased with Harden’s choices: “I’m just looking at what’s the right play in that moment. I think for the most part he was trying to make the right play.” But that is not how the Rockets are used to playing, and it’s fair to wonder if they get so much of their energy from Harden’s scoring that all of those correct basketball plays sapped their spirit.
They were also missing Danuel House, who is being investigated for violating COVID-19 protocols, and Robert Covington, who is being investigated for only shooting twice in Game 4. Covington was minus-18 in 24 minutes and eventually got benched.
The Rockets are so different from other teams, and so proud of how different they are, that when they lose, it is easy to say it is because they are different. This year, that narrative is that small-ball doesn’t work, Harden isn’t a postseason player, D’Antoni isn’t a postseason coach, and the Russell Westbrook trade was a mistake. It all sounds good between commercials of a debate show. But one might also fairly note, as D’Antoni did: “They’re good.” He meant the Lakers. You know, the ones with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Harden is 31. Westbrook turns 32 in November. They have a lot of good basketball left, but so much of Westbrook’s excellence stems from relentlessness and athleticism, two traits that might not age well. The Rockets gave up two first-rounders and two potential pick swaps to the Thunder in the Westbrook-Chris Paul trade, so improving the team from here will be a challenge.
The Rockets are looking more and more like their generation’s biggest what-if team. What if Chris Paul had been healthy two years ago, when the Rockets took a 3-2 Western Conference Finals lead on Golden State? For that matter: What if Kevin Durant had not joined the Warriors? Or if the Lakers had not acquired Davis? And what if Rockets general manager Daryl Morey had built a more conventional team around Harden?
That last one is unanswerable. Give Morey credit for being willing to take smart risks; his way might not bring a ring, but most ways do not bring a ring. Teams can win in the NBA with smart management, but winning a championship requires some good fortune, too. The Rockets’ way is not wrong. It has worked. It just hasn’t worked completely.
And it probably won’t work completely in this series. The Lakers are not a truly great team like the Warriors were; James and Davis cover a lot of holes. But they are better than the Rockets, and unlikely to lose three straight.
D’Antoni and Harden pointed to the fourth quarter, when the Rockets outscored the Lakers, as a sign of what they can do when they play harder. D’Antoni said, “We made the same mistakes in the fourth quarter we did in the others, but our spirit was right and our minds were right and we came at it. Whether we make mistakes or not, it doesn’t really matter. It’s how hard we’re doing those things.” But why weren’t they playing hard in the first half?
“That’s a good question,” Harden said.
There was a pause, as reporters in the room and on Zoom waited for him to elaborate. He never did, making James Harden the rare person in the NBA without much to say about the Rockets.