I’m sure every Rockets fan can remember exactly where they were when Damian Lillard stole the world away from us. I was at my favorite sports bar and just lost my voice with the excitement of what was surely a game 6 win for the Rockets and an opportunity to bring the series back home for a game 7 win. What was a compelling game to watch with two teams that wouldn’t back down came down to the final 9/10ths of a second, but we were already celebrating game 7. The ball was then thrown back into play, and we all got to witness this:
Game over. Lillard’s buzz beater 3 pointer sealed the fate of the Rockets that season, and fans around the city went from immense joy to silent depression. In the moments after, you could walk out on any city street and hear a pin drop. Minutes earlier, people already started celebrating. That buzzer beater will always remind each and every one of us that anything can happen within the time span of the clock. Hold your breath, get excited, but save the celebration for 0.0.
Last night’s game was played in a similar fashion and mentality. The Rockets came out with explosive energy and played their hearts out. The Warriors, albeit without their star Steph Curry, were knocked on their feet. They did stage a gradual comeback throughout the game, and in the 4th quarter, it was neck-and-neck. This was the kind of playoff game you want to be at. This is the kind of ball we all wanted to see all season long, and it finally appeared in a must-win situation to keep the Rockets alive. For as much disappointment this team has given us all this season, this game began to make up for it.
Most of us, though, still have that memory. When Harden sank his jumper in the last few seconds, the clock stopped at a near-ominous point: 2.1 seconds remaining in the game. The Lillard shot took .9 seconds. This was far from over. The bench, including Josh Smith, Dwight Howard, and Clint Capella, stood anxiously watching Harden’s moves. When he sank it, Capella was overjoyed, Josh Smith looked unfazed, and Dwight Howard seemed to quietly praise God. However, the ever-scrutinous Rockets fan base, as well as NBA critics around the world, began to wonder if the team didn’t get as excited as they should have.
The scrutiny itself seems silly, especially when we can all look back at the 2014 playoffs. However, it’s not just the overly critical Rockets fans reacting to this. It’s the NBA at large, who has been privy to the off-court drama and on-court play this team has dished out this season. A team on the brink of the championship in 2015 comes out in disarray. Multiple players only meetings, one resulting in the incredible and unwarranted firing of their head coach, as well as the pretty embarrassing trade-shopping for Howard clearly demonstrated a team in trouble.
In fact, this season is the direct antithesis of what a championship basketball team is and how one works. Game after game we had players showing up for attendance and checking out halfway through the game. At times, they weren’t even there. Sloppy plays, increasingly desperate 3 point attempts, a hastily appointed interim coach that had no authority over the team, and a group of players that hardly resembled a team, much less the few games away from a Championship game team that left the court in 2015. And let’s not forget defense, even though the team has.
Today’s story would be different, much different, had the Rockets brushed off the tulmutuous season and hit the playoffs in a mad sprint. They didn’t. The first game was as much of a mess as the entire season had been. It’s a game that had everyone chanting “sweep” from every couch cushion, barstool, and stadium seat around the country, watching this series. If game 3 had been a testimony of the effort and heart these players put into the whole series, nobody would be watching the bench instead of the court in the final seconds of the game.
That didn’t happen, though. We were treated to two abysmal games in which the Rockets had each and every chance to make this a 3-0 series, especially considering Curry’s exit in game 1, but continue their haphazard season in the same way they carried themselves throughout. Had this team hit the court in game 1 or 2, the Rockets would have a 3-0 record, and an opportunity to advance and actually sweep the Warriors – the record-breaking, unstoppable Warriors – to advance to the next round. This playoff series was theirs to prove what they had, and we heard it loud and clear.
A team with the talent, to step up when they really have to – and last night, they really had to – but not a championship team that has what it takes to step up every game.
People are confused and irritated about the scrutiny on the sidelines with 2 seconds left in the game? They shouldn’t be. By all appearances, this now-infamous vine wasn’t even posted by a Rockets fan or affiliate. So it’s not Rocket fan scrutiny happening here. We can turn our heads when Barkley slams the team, but when the fandom of the NBA is speaking up, that is hard to ignore. Sure, Rockets fans and critics alike jumped on the scrutiny, but it came from a place existing outside of the Rocketsphere. Those queries and critiques are the ones we should listen to.
Regardless of how far the team gets in the playoffs (which I predict will be 3 more games, tops), the problems within this organization are a little to loud to ignore. When it comes down to whether or one half of your feuding players are celebrating the counterpart’s success on the court, instead of what’s happening on the court, the organization can’t brush it off. The scrutiny is there for a reason. So let’s stop defending the players and criticizing the fans for their eye toward detail that usually shouldn’t matter. It matters this year, and we all know why.