The Houston Rockets have won 54 or more games in a season five times in the franchise’s 44-year history. The first time they accomplished that feat, they made an appearance in the Conference semifinals before losing in seven to a Seattle SuperSonics team that in turn fell one game shy of the NBA Finals. Then, in 1994, the Rockets bounced back in the sweetest way possible, winning 58 games and lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time in franchise history. A few years later, they had another crack at winning a title, but saw the Utah Jazz prevail in a grueling six-game series that prevented them from going to the big dance with the Chicago Bulls.
However, since those golden years, things haven’t been so gilded. In the last 17 seasons, Houston’s only made the playoffs nine times. They’ve twice more hit that 54-win mark, yet both times they got routed in the opening round.
They had teams capable of making deep postseason runs in the mid-to-late 2000’s, but injuries ran their course, stripping them of their most important players when they needed them the most. Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming were at the forefront of a what-could’ve-been-era in Red Nation, one which saw two of the NBA’s biggest stars battle injuries in the peaks of their respective careers. It’s not that they didn’t show signs of life; it’s that whenever they did, something came along to bite them in the ass. Twice they went to a Game 7 against a Western Conference powerhouse, and twice they ended up going home with their tails between their legs. Even when the Rockets managed to show some life, advancing past the Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, any hopes of upsetting the top seeded L.A. Lakers in the second round were put on the back-burner when Yao suffered a hairline fracture in his left foot that ruled him out for the remainder of the postseason. (That series would last six games, and the Lakers went on to win their 15th championship).
This 54-win season, however, was a different story. There were no back spasms that cut their leading scorer’s season short; there were not nagging foot injuries that kept their defensive anchor sidelined for prolonged periods of time; there was no bad luck sweeping through the streets of Houston. The Rockets’ one-two punch was healthy, and ready to capitalise on one of the franchise’s most successful regular seasons. It was supposed to be a start of a “New Age,” and they had a chance to kick it off with a bang.
There was no wonder why many picked them as a dark-horse title contender. With a healthy James Harden and Dwight Howard at the helm, the pieces of the puzzle were all on the table, ready to be put together. The two stars had their ups-and-downs in their first season together and it took them until the turn of the New Year to develop some real chemistry, but sure enough, it happened. To complement the franchise’s stars, the Rockets got a big boost in production from Terrence Jones, who spent most of his rookie season in the D-League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Patrick Beverley also stepped up to the plate, making a name for himself as one of the league’s best perimeter defenders — a reputation that got him a couple of votes for Defensive Player of the Year. Throw it all together and the Rockets posted one of the best records in the NBA in 2014, announcing themselves as one of the league’s powerhouses. They boasted one of the most efficient offenses in the Association, scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions, and their defense started to make a respectable turn.
To make it all sweeter, their first-round matchup against the Trail Blazers was theirs to lose. The Rockets had home-court advantage and emerged as victors of three of the four regular season games between the two clubs. Not only that, had they been able to advance, they would’ve faced the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the second-round; a team they manhandled in the regular season. However, the sweetness of the sugar soon took a turn for the bitter, and their season came to a screeching halt.
Not only did the Rockets lose in six games to the Portland Trail Blazers, they did so in an embarrassing fashion. They played well at times, but their darkest demons came back to haunt them at the worst possible moments of the series. Over the six games, the Rockets led for more than 75 percent of the minutes played, but they outscored the Blazers in the fourth quarter just once. The fell into an 0-2 hole, losing their opening two games at home, which put them in a position that only three teams in NBA history have ever been able to climb themselves back out of. To make it all worse, Harden was a shell of his All-Star self, converting on 37.6 percent of his shots, and was yet again a disgrace on the defensive end. Not even Dwight’s resurgence (26 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game) could make up the difference.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that in the midst of all of those blown opportunities, missed coverages and sheer laziness, the Rockets were in a position to win every game. When it was all said and done, the series was decided by a total of 28 points. Had they not blown their 11-point lead in the weaning minutes of Game One, or simply double-teamed LaMarcus Aldridge when he was firing on all cylinders, or ran something other than isolations in crunch time, or not lost track of the Blazers’ most cold-blooded starter on the final possession of Game Six, perhaps they would be in the second-round right now. But they failed to make those late game adjustments, and the rest is now part of 54-win history.
It’s rare that a team that has undergone a major retool is able to compete for a chip in their first season together. We saw the Boston Celtics do it in 2008, and the Miami Heat weren’t far behind in 2011, but it is a rare feat, which is something the Rockets can hang their hat on. But there is an underlying difference between those teams and this Rockets squad; Houston, for all of its talent and camaraderie, was never truly ready to compete for a championship. They’re too young, too inexperienced and too naive to know what it takes to compete at the highest level. Harden isn’t the leader he needs to be at this stage of his career to carry a team to a deep post-season run, and the team as a whole has some growing up to do.
In the Rockets’ end-of-season interviews, phrases like “hidden agendas,” “same goals,” and “playing for one another” were all thrown around. They weren’t on the same page in these playoffs, it’s clear, and they desperately need something to wake them up so they can smell the coffee. Perhaps that wake up call is an acquisition of a veteran this summer, someone who can steer them in the right direction and set the precedence of how to accomplish the goals they set out when they brought James Harden and Dwight Howard on board. Or perhaps it’s the hiring of a new coach, someone who can implement a framework that gets the best out of everyone. Or perhaps it’ll take Damian Lillard closing the door on one of the few 54-win seasons the Rockets have ever had in historic fashion.
One can only hope that the latter proves to be the case.