Down 3-1 in their Round 1 series and playing the defending champs on the road in Game 5, the Houston Rockets look all but dead. Will they fight for their playoff lives, or wither as they did in the second half of Game 4? Also, a look into what can be gained from tonight's game even if they lose.
This year's version of the Houston Rockets can be described only in confused phrases of circular negativity: you can only count on not being able to count on them.
But do they even care? We've all laughed over and over again at the less-than-thrilled reaction of most of the bench after James Harden's Game 3 winner. We also saw them battle admirably to a 56-56 tie at halftime of Game 4, while Steph Curry was put on the shelf with a knee injury just before half. Of course instead of seizing the moment, the Rockets wilted embarrassingly in the second half, falling 121-94.
You can only count on not being able to count on them.
Is there any pride left? Not without point guard Patrick Beverley, who is looking like a game-time decision with a right hamstring injury sustained in the second quarter of Game 4. Lacking Beverley's antagonism the Rockets were outscored 65-38 in the last two quarters Sunday. If he is out Wednesday night, one would think it's lights out for the Rockets. But since you can't count on them to succumb to logic, it's conceivable they win in Oakland, then follow it up by losing Game 6 at home by 50 points.
If they do lose tonight, it would be an almost welcome sight for many Clutch City supporters. Even more welcome would be seeing them go down in a hard-fought battle. That means getting back on transition defense, a struggle all season. It means the team's franchise player, James Harden, being engaged on the defensive end. It also means an energetic bench, Dwight Howard and Clint Capela bullying the Warriors in the post and the type of frantic up and down style reminiscent of last year's team when it came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Clippers.
Typing those sentences with a straight face was surprisingly difficult, because it seems last season's level of sustained effort was either smoke and mirrors or has been completely forgotten by this squad, even though it's largely the same team.
Most maddening for Rockets fans is this sad team could have just lost its last two regular season games and kept its 2016 draft pick. If they weren't going to put forth any effort once they got to the postseason, what was the point? Mercifully end the season at Game 82 and start studying Lottery picks. That would have given the team a chance to assess right away who belongs and who needs to be sent packing from this disappointing group. Not to mention acting quickly to get a real coach on board that could immediately start erasing 2015-16 from the city's memory.
JB Bickerstaff is not the answer. His biggest flaw, arguably, is that he doesn't stick with something that's working. It's like he's anticipating the other coach's adjustment and countering that before it ever happens. Rather than waiting for the opponent's chess move, he's taking two turns in a row, which only serves to stop his own team's success. Is Howard establishing himself in the post, getting dunks and putting the Warriors' big men in foul trouble? No more post-ups for you, Dwight. At the same time, Bickerstaff will stick with a losing strategy for way too long. He insists on playing Corey Brewer in this series over KJ McDaniels, even though Brewer can't hit a three anymore. In the lone game the Rockets won in the series (Game 3), Brewer played just three minutes. In Game 4 he was back to playing 17 minutes, going 0-3 from beyond the arc. For some reason Bickerstaff continues to bury Capela, even when Dwight struggles. Capela played solid playoff minutes as a rookie last year and it's not like he's gotten demonstrably worse as a player. At the very least he brings energy on both ends, which this team desperately needs.
With that in mind, there is a way Bickerstaff can help the team find a silver lining in this series, even if it all ends for Houston tonight. Just play the young guys heavy minutes. Play the guys who care and will give maximum effort on both sides of the ball. You're probably getting blown out anyway. The only way you can salvage a positive out of this series/season is by exposing McDaniels, Capela, Montrezl Harrell and Andrew Goudelock to meaningful playoff minutes. Consider it a long term investment: what it costs the team in shooting and ball control today will be more than made up in playoff education. Bickerstaff may as well give Rockets fans some lineups to cheer for that give a damn and play with pride. Why not see what you have in these guys, who have shown flashes in very limited playing time, while also getting them playoff experience in a hostile arena like Oracle? Meanwhile, it will send a message to the grumpy veterans that the Rockets no longer tolerate malcontents. Give them a reason to sweat, with hungry youngsters coming after their job. Again, you sacrificed a Lottery pick to make a playoff run, at the very least get some player development out of it.
None of that will happen, of course, because Bickerstaff is coaching for a miracle series win over the Warriors that would (maybe) save his job. That's the problem with the interim coach. By human nature, they are going to make decisions based on personal survival rather than long term team success, until that interim tag is removed.
So we'll get Harden for 40+ minutes, along with Howard, Ariza and the same old tired group that basically told the home crowd, "We couldn't care less about any of this," in the second half of Game 4.
You can count on it.