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OPINION: It’s officially time to stop taking the Rockets seriously



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Houston Rockets star Russell Westbrook takes a breath during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers in game five of the Western Conference Second Round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs on Saturday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The Lakers won the playoff series 4-1 to advance to the Western Conference Finals. Tribune News Service

There comes a certain point in life, and in sports, where you just have to accept the evidence in front of you and block all outside noise. If you’re an NBA fan, that time is now with the Houston Rockets.

We know about the regular season storylines with Houston — James Harden’s scoring outbursts, the influx of three-point shooting and the ultra-small ball experiment that caught everyone by surprise. These headlines translate to eye-opening stat lines, can’t-miss highlights and even a solid amount of tallies in the win column.

When it’s all said and done and playoff basketball rolls around, it’s time to dismiss the Rockets hype and remember what years of evidence has told us — the Rockets brand of basketball does not bring postseason success. 

Harden and the Rockets, to put it lightly, have been underwhelming in recent playoff runs. Since Harden arrived in Houston back in 2012, the team has gone to the playoffs every year, yet have only appeared in two Western Conference Finals. 

What may be even more concerning is the ways in which they’ve been eliminated. 

Harden’s Rockets teams have been knocked out in six games or less in every single postseason series they have lost except one, including this year’s 4-1 beatdown suffered at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.

It must also be noted how difficult it has been to make it out of the Western Conference, especially when the Golden State Warriors were at the peak of their dynasty. Yet, aside from the 2017-18 season when the team had Chris Paul, the Rockets have not really sniffed an NBA Finals berth. They have never shown to be as tough a team as their regular season record suggests.

The reason for this comes down to a couple of factors. First, the Rockets’ stagnant and ball-dominant style lets opposing teams in a seven-game series focus long and hard on Harden and how to stop the way they play. It’s easier to prepare for a ball-dominant team than a one like the Warriors — even without Kevin Durant — who have shooters running through screens non-stop in a half-court offense.

Moreover, the difference in the way the game is officiated in the playoffs plays a role in slowing down Houston. For how good of a scorer Harden is, it’s no secret that a lot of his production comes from the free-throw line. In the last three seasons, Harden has attempted at least two less free throws per game in the playoffs than he has in the regular season. Ultimately, referees aren’t going to give Harden as many 50-50 calls in game five of a playoff series than they will in game 42 of the regular season.

The solution for the Rockets isn’t an obvious one, but it should start with becoming less predictable and less dependent on Harden. Having another star like Russell Westbrook can help lessen the burden, but even when he holds the ball, their offense consists of four stationary players and one ball handler.

With the news breaking earlier this week about head coach Mike D’Antoni not returning to the team next season, there could be some real change coming to the Rockets and its approach in the future. But until that evidence exists, it would be silly to expect any deep playoff run from the same team we’ve seen fail over and over again.

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