Not to say that James Harden and the Houston Rockets necessarily needed a couple days rest before heading to Oakland for their (can we call it inevitable?) second-round matchup against the Golden State Warriors.
But, man, sure would have been nice.
On Monday night — Tuesday morning if you live on the East Coast — Harden’s Rockets blew a golden opportunity to rest their legs and rest their minds a little bit longer before heading to Oracle Arena for what ought to be the single-best series of these NBA playoffs.
Look, if you’re a Los Angeles Clippers fan or a Jazz fan, I get it. Your teams still have a chance! They do. And I love both of these teams. But do you know the record for NBA teams when they fall down 3-0 in a playoff series? They’ve won zero of those series, and they’ve lost all 134 of them. Only three have gone to seven games. And hey, if you’re a Clippers fan, good on ya — incredible story, incredible culture, and I believe in this franchise for the future. But I certainly don’t believe in this franchise for the present.
What we should all believe in, however, is the Rockets getting a second shot at the Warriors a week from now.
It’s a shame, I suppose, that we’re getting this series in the second round instead of in the Western Conference finals. Blame the Rockets. First off, they started the season in a rut — they were below .500 well into December. And second, what happened the final two days of the NBA’s regular season — Houston losing at Oklahoma City on the same night the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Los Angeles Lakers, then Portland beating the Sacramento Kings the next night — meant that Houston’s rematch with the Warriors would come one round before a year ago. Oh well. Will still be awesome.
But would have been a little more awesome, at least from Houston’s vantage point, is if it had been able to take Game 4 in Utah and complete a sweep of the Jazz.
Instead, the Jazz — with their incredible home-court advantage, with their so-loud-even-Marv-Albert-can’t-hear-himself-talk fans, and with a Donovan Mitchell who still knows he’s this team’s heart and soul even after missing that wide-open 3 at the end of Game 3 — showed us their best side.
I expected this to be the most exciting of the first-round series. After the first two games, that was clearly not the case. Utah barely competed in Houston. Their innovative (gimmicky?) defense on Harden worked somewhat well; in two games, they “held” Harden to only 30.5 points per game and only four free throw attempts per game. (It is a testament to Harden’s historic scoring abilities that that is considered a pretty massive success by the Utah defense.) But whatever: Harden didn’t necessarily beat them, but they still got blown out, by 32 points in Game 1 and by 20 points in Game 2. Pick your poison, I suppose. But in Game 3, we saw the best version of the Jazz: They shut down Harden, who had theand missed his first 15 shots, and Mitchell was an absolute beast. But the Jazz could never pull away, and Mitchell missed that shot at the end, and here we were, with a series that should have been awesome that was now looking like a sweep.
The Jazz earned their victory on Monday night, just like they would have earned their victory on Saturday night if they’d been able to pull it out late. This wasn’t a Rockets choke job, not an 0-for-27 streak from 3-point land that killed their hopes last postseason. This was exactly what this series was supposed to be.
And yet, if you’re the Rockets, you can’t help but look at it as a missed opportunity.
You had a chance to close these guys out. You had a chance for a week or so to rest those tired legs — and if you are a student of James Harden’s playoff history, you know how tired legs can affect things. You had a chance to make a statement.
Now they head back to Houston. Maybe Utah can produce a miracle and come back from a 3-0 deficit. Hey, 16-seed UMBC beat 1-seed Virginia a year ago. Crazier things have happened in sports, though not many. But given how Utah played in those first two games in Houston, it feels like a safe bet to assume the Rockets win in Game 5. But still, Monday night’s loss will be remembered as a lost opportunity. More rest can only help. And even though the Rockets have been absolutely rolling for a couple months now, they need all the help they can get against the two-time reigning champs.