Behind all of the hand-wringing and philosophizing about what went wrong with the Houston Rockets over the last two games (30 and 33 point blowouts to the Clippers) the elephant in the room is that, in the 2nd half of both games, the team just flat out quit.
Yes, Kevin McHale is a strategic liability, and yes both DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin have been killing the Rockets with great inside play. But isn't that why the Rockets went out and obtained the services of Dwight Howard, to put a damper on great inside play? And what, last night, did Howard do? He found a way to get himself ejected from the game.
That's quitting, any way you look at it.
In the past I've been hard on James Harden because he scores points, but forgets that there's another, equally important, half of the game. On defense a disengaged James Harden is a liability to the Rockets. He's been a defensive liability this entire series. He's playing closer now to "sixth man of the year" status than he is anywhere near the 2nd place finisher in the MVP balloting. If you had to revote right now would Harden even be in your top 5? Probably not.
The Rockets are the basketball equivalent of a Lindt Chocolate Truffle. They have a seemingly hard exterior which, once cracked, exposes a silky soft interior. The thing is, it's not all that hard to break through the shell if you're a good team.
The Dallas Mavericks were not a good team. They were led by a rapidly aging Nowitzki, a 2nd-tier scorer in Monte Ellis and a male fashion model masquerading as an NBA player in Chandler Parsons. The 1st round win, and the breathless analysis that the Rockets had "progressed" from last year because of it, is nothing more than fool's gold. Had the Rockets played the Spurs instead of the Mavericks it would have been San Antonio and the Clippers going at it in Round 2. It would have been a much better series as well.
It was a brain-dead moment on the last day of the season by the Spurs that prevented that from happening. If anything, this proves that the regular NBA season still has importance, but it means nothing in terms of a team's chances of winning a championship. To win one of those, you need heart. And the Rockets desperately need a transplant. Stat.
I've no doubt that head coach Kevin McHale is going to take the lion's share of the blame for this. And that share is well deserved. At times against the Clippers he has seemed clueless about what needs to be done to turn this train-wreck around. It's very clear that, from an X's and O's perspective, he's not only overmatched but, against the top coaches, he's not even playing the same game. I think the Rockets need to seriously consider making a change in the off-season.
Some of the blame needs to be laid at the feet of GM Daryl Morey as well. While I'm a fan of Sabremetrics and the statistical approach it takes to building a roster, I also think that it needs to be blended with the human factor as well. A team needs competitors, and the Rockets have few. It's OK to have Dwight Howard and James Harden on your roster leading the team provided you have another leader who has the desire, and strength of will, to herd the cats when things start turning South. The Rockets thought that Terry would be that veteran, but he doesn't play a big enough roll to matter.
Hard core fans will point to the fact that Beverly and D-Mo are out with injuries. That's true. But would a middle of the pack NBA point guard and below-average small forward really do much to change the dynamics of the series? Not as long as the big two decide to open up a can of quit when things get dicey.
If anything, the Game 4 result reminded us that the window for this Rocket's team has always been very narrow, and it's closing in a hurry. Early rumors are that the Mavericks are going after LaMarcus Aldridge, which would make them a much more formidable team next year. A legitimate playoff contender. Something they weren't this year. Golden State has Steph Curry, Cleveland is still out there with King James and the Bulls are looking like a team on the come. We still haven't mentioned the Clippers, whose time might be THIS year the way they are playing.
And the Rockets?
They're done, barring something changing in the mental make-up of this team. They can talk as much as they want about "backs against the wall" and "being back in our house" all they want. Lest we forget the win that they had at home required some of the most curious officiating of the series. Game 1? Well, it was a blowout as well. I don't see any way this Rockets team beat the Clippers 3 games in a row. Barring a heart transplant that is.
Here's the 2nd point: If your team rolls over and plays dead, TWICE, then you as a fan are under no obligation to keep with them. They quit, you quit. It really is that simple. "Wait until next year!" is a perfectly acceptable rallying cry.
Because of that I'm going to be spending my Tuesday evening watching the sure to be more entertaining Game 7 between the Capitals and the Rangers in the NHL. For the Rockets, I'm taking the Missouri approach: