The Ultra Small-Ball Houston Rockets Advance, But Can They Do It Again?

With less than ten seconds left on the clock, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA’s most clutch team, had the opportunity to send the Rockets back to Houston.

But instead the unthinkable happened.

As the Thunder were scrambling for their final shot, they ended up settling on a swing pass to the left corner, which would result in a game-winner from rookie Luguentz Dort. But instead of Dort’s storybook ending, his shot was quickly erased by James Harden.

Yes, James Harden.

“It’s cool to get 40 or 50 points or to be shooting the ball extremely well,” Harden said in a presser following the game. “Obviously, we all want to do that. But just to get recognition and for it to pay off when it counts on the defensive end, it shows I can engage and lock in. To show that in a clutch moment means a lot.”

As the ball went out of bounds, through his gaudy beard the 2018 MVP let out a lion roar. The celebration not only symbolized the win, but all the postseason trauma that the Rockets have faced in the past five seasons.

The five straight eliminations, 27 consecutive misses, the Chris Paul injury and not being able to escape the wrath of the Golden State Warriors, were all temporarily erased after defeating the Thunder in the Western Conference quarterfinals.

“Like [Nipsey] Hussle said, never let a hard time humble us,” said Harden.

The Rockets were able to escape the grasp of a scrappy OKC team but will now have to face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. The ultra-small ball versus the length of the Lakers will be a style clash that the Rockets will need everything for. With two MVPs as their lead guards, Houston does possess the guard play that will pressure any backcourt, but will especially be a handful for the Lakers backcourt that had issues with Portland’s CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard in the previous series.

Mike D’Antoni’s and Daryl Morey’s small ball experiment has been questioned by everyone since its inception. But a February 7th win over these same Los Angeles Lakers put the whole league on watch.

Behind a 41-point performance from Russell Westbrook and four threes from their newly-acquired forward Robert Covington, the Rockets stunned the Staples Center crowd with a 122-111 victory. To do that four times in a series will be tough, but the Rockets will need everything and then some to do so.

The Rockets will need the consistency of their supporting cast Covington and Eric Gordon every night. Covington and Gordon respectively averaged 14 and 19 in their four wins against Oklahoma City. Along with the boost of Covington and Gordon, they still will also need Westbrook and Harden at their MVP level to outlast the Lakers.

And even then it still might not be enough.

Unlike Portland, Houston does not possess the shot-blocking of Hassan Whiteside or the skill-set of Jusef Nurkić. The lack of bigs will lead a ton of driving lanes for LeBron James and eye-opening isolation opportunities for Anthony Davis, which could lead to a lot of (insert drink of choice) for D’Antoni and company.

This series will likely do one or two things for the franchise. It could put the Rockets closer to championship aspirations or potentially end what has been an amazing yet also underwhelming tenure of basketball. With the latter being more likely, the Rockets will have now fallen to Western Conference or NBA champions for six consecutive seasons. With D’Antoni’s contract expiring and him rumored to become the next Indiana Pacers coach, it will culminate an era.

After mortgaging their future in the Westbrook deal, Houston doesn’t have much flexibility roster wise and will have to make yet another swing to maximize Harden and Westbrook’s championship window as it reaches closer to the seal. These next few weeks will tell us a lot about what we know or what we may be seeing in the future in Houston.

I would love to be wrong but this feels closer to the end than to the beginning here.

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