Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni asked a simple request of his team following a Game 4 loss that put Houston on the brink of elimination.
D'Antoni implored his team to play with greater energy and effort, a message echoed throughout the roster in the lead up to Saturday night. D'Antoni got his wish for a stretch of Game 5, and the Rockets fought back from a 22-point deficit with an inspiring run in the second quarter. But the second half on Saturday mirrored much of the Rockets' struggles throughout their series against Los Angeles. Houston didn't have the personnel to slow the supersized Lakers, and its season is now over after a 119-96 loss. There remains uncertainty over the state of both the Rockets' roster and coaching staff. This isn't the most painful exit of the James Harden era, but it is likely to be a consequential one nonetheless.
"It's very, very frustrating," Harden said postgame regarding another second-round exit. "Especially considering the work I put in. But I just got to chip away."
The three-time scoring champion held up his end of the bargain on Saturday night. Harden spent much of Game 4 bottled by a slate of Los Angeles double teams, but the Rockets had a few wrinkles ready in order to free their leading man in Game 5. Harden finished Saturday night with 30 points on 12-20 shooting. He was aggressive driving to the rim and eager to push the pace in transition. Perhaps the Rockets would still be alive if they had this version of Harden throughout the series.
But frankly any Harden explosion wouldn't have been enough against Los Angeles either in Game 5 or across the entire series. LeBron James and Anthony Davis flexed their All-NBA muscle throughout the gentleman's sweep, and the same was true on Saturday night. James led Los Angeles with 29 points, adding 11 rebounds and nine assists as he closed the series in vintage form. Davis remained an interior force despite not scoring for the first 17 minutes. The Lakers' dynamic duo is difficult to beat regardless of their supporting cast. On a night when Los Angeles shoots over 50 percent from three, few (if any) opponents stand a chance.
So what should the Rockets take away from the first year of the Harden-Westbrook partnership? The answer is hard to parse. This looked like a legitimate championship contender in spurts this season, and there's little shame in losing to the Western Conference's top seed. But each year without reaching the Finals marks a missed opportunity with Harden leading the way, especially considering Houston's future salary cap and pick situation.
Westbrook remains imperfect. It's hard to see him aging gracefully. 2020-21 is the last year of P.J. Tucker's deal, and Eric Gordon's inconsistency will call into question the value of his four-year, $76 million contract. Perhaps Daryl Morey can concoct a package for a third All-Star. Perhaps additions on the margins will minimize the shortcomings of Houston's small-ball system. But there's no clear upgrade at play, and the Western Conference isn't getting any easier. After last summer's blockbuster trade, the Rockets have hit another roadblock in their chase of a championship.