If the Rockets are today the worst team in the league for two years, it must be remembered that they were still at the top of the NBA only four seasons ago.
Under the orders of Mike D’Antoni, with James Harden and Chris Paul in charge, the Texas franchise had indeed won the best record in its history, during the 2017/18 season: 65 wins and 17 losses! Enough for the league’s most famous bearded man to (finally) become MVP and for Houston to attack the playoffs as the title favorite, with Golden State.
In the first round and in the conference semi-finals, the Rockets had also assumed their status, quietly eliminating the Wolves (4-1) then the Jazz (4-1), to reach the conference final. And find the defending champions of the Warriors there, for a dream poster between the two best teams in the country.
Chris Paul injured, Houston does not conclude …
A series that finally kept all its promises and offered its share of drama, with Golden State immediately recovering the home field advantage in Game 1, before Houston equalized in Game 2, still at the Toyota Center. Direction the Oracle Arena, therefore, to see the « Dubs » turn to 2-1 at the end of Game 3.
Moment chosen by James Harden’s teammates to return to 2-2 then continue at home, in order to lead 3-2 after Game 5. Except that, in this same Game 5, Chris Paul injured his hamstrings and the series rocks, because the All-Star point guard is forced to miss Game 6 then Game 7…
» We could see it in their eyes, we had them, they were on the ropes remembers Mike D’Antoni. » No one knows if we would have won [avec Chris Paul]. I’m not so stupid as to say, ‘We would have beaten them.’ A bit like with the suspensions of [Boris Diaw et Amar’e Stoudemire] with Phoenix, in 2007. I don’t know what that would have been like. [Les Warriors] were a great team, they might have found a way to win. »
Largely dominated in Game 6 in Oakland, despite a 17-point lead in the first quarter, the Rockets then collapsed in Game 7, yet disputed in Texas. Leading by 15 points in the first half, the James Harden, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, PJ Tucker and other Trevor Ariza were ultimately unable to survive their series of 27 missed 3-point shots (!), between the second and fourth quarters…
The Rockets’ biggest « what if… »?
Four years later, and even if everyone does not necessarily pour out (or more) on the subject, the regrets must still be present in the heads of the Texan players of the time. For Mike D’Antoni, it is in any case difficult not to recognize it…
» It’s a huge regret, because we would still be in Houston today “thinks squarely the former coach of Houston, left by the back door. » With Chris [Paul] and james [Harden], we would always be with the Rockets, chaining the victories. But that’s how it was, that’s how it was supposed to be. »
After this painful elimination in the conference final, therefore, against the future champions of the Warriors, the Rockets have indeed never managed to do better then, whether in 2018/19 or in 2019/20. And, this, in spite of a gala James Harden in scoring (35.3 points on average over these two seasons!).
In the end, while Mike D’Antoni left Houston in the fall of 2020 and Chris Paul was sent to the Thunder almost at the same time, James Harden left the Texas franchise for the Nets, in beginning of the year 2021. Leaving it to begin a slow but necessary reconstruction, after a great period of success, albeit without a title.
And above all leaving Rockets fans with a bitter feeling in the mouth, generated by this famous « what if… » linked to Chris Paul’s injury during Game 5 against the Warriors, in the middle of the 2018 playoffs.