In the end, they were just nine points away.
In the 99th game of a historic season, with one of the great offenses in NBA history, the Rockets somehow lost by mere single digits in an offensively-challenged Game 7 that in all likelihood decided the NBA title. (Despite the individual brilliance of LeBron James, the Cavs have never been anywhere near the class of Houston or Golden State.)
It would be easier to move past if the Rockets had lost by 39, the way they did in Game 6 of the second round vs. San Antonio in 2017. Frustrating as it was, the obvious takeaway then was that the team just wasn’t good enough — and GM Daryl Morey responded in kind with the offseason additions of Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute.
This year hurts far worse because the team was good enough. Think of the perfect storm it took to knock off the Rockets in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, a game they led by 11 at the half and by as much as 17 in the second quarter. All against the defending champion Warriors, featuring four All-Stars, two former MVPs, and probably the most talented NBA roster ever assembled.
Paul, one of the league’s top 10 players when healthy and a second-half assassin in the closeout Game 5 vs. Utah and both the fourth and fifth games vs. Golden State, couldn’t play with a Grade 2 hamstring strain. Yes, a healthy CP3 is worth at least nine points.
The Rockets, arguably the league’s most prolific three-point shooting team of all-time for the season as a whole, had a season-worst 7-of-44 (15.9%) showing from behind the arc. It was a historic outlier at the worst possible time. For those wanting to argue that Houston should have taken fewer three-pointers, that’s where Paul and his notorious mid-range game should come into play… and he was unavailable.
As far as the volume of attempts, it’s worth noting that the champion Warriors took nearly as many with 39 themselves. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the style. Golden State simply had more of theirs go in the basket (16). Sometimes the game is that simple. Make or miss. If Houston had even shot 11-of-44 (25%), still well below its usual accuracy, those 12 points would’ve been enough. Fatigue due to Paul's absence and the resulting rotation crunch may have also played a role in the shooting woes.
And then there’s the matter of officiating, which was so bad that national media members and fellow players with no connection to Houston took to Twitter to blast the officials for favoritism to Golden State. Some went as far as to compare it to the WWE.
Change even one of those three variables — Paul’s absence, once-in-a-lifetime poor shooting, and awful officiating — and the Rockets would’ve had a great chance to win. Switch two of the three, and they probably win going away and are headed to the NBA Finals for a romp vs. Cleveland and the franchise's first NBA championship since 1995.
The Rockets should have won.
But as it is, none of that happened. The Rockets lost by nine points in a home Game 7, and it was devastating. Players were heartbroken in the locker room, and the 2018 Rockets almost certainly pass the 1998 Astros as the best team in Houston sports history not to win a title. They're also one of the best-ever NBA teams not to win one.
Tears were shed, and justifiably so.
We knew the Rockets were legit after a franchise-best 65 wins in the regular season. After this playoff run, though? They proved to be special. After going 8-2 (an .800 winning clip, even better than their .793 pace in the regular season) through the first two rounds of the playoffs vs. Minnesota and Utah and then going up 3-2 on the vaunted Warriors, it took that perfect storm of random circumstances to knock them off.
Even with one All-Star and MVP (James Harden) going up against a group with four All-Stars and two former MVPs (Kevin Durant, Steph Curry), think of all that had to go wrong just for the Warriors to escape with a single-digit win in Game 7. That’s how good Houston was. That’s how strong the chemistry was. That’s how incredible their effort was, led by massive nights inside from Clint Capela (20/9) and Tucker (14/12) to partially offset the poor shooting.
The Rockets worked all season to get the NBA’s best record and home-court advantage in a potential Game 7 — and the electric crowd at Toyota Center proved worth it and nearly carried Houston to the finish line. The Rockets deserved better, and that’s what makes it sting so much.
That said, if there’s any silver lining for the Rockets, it’s that they’re far from alone. In sports, sometimes the better team loses — particularly in one-game, winner-take-all scenarios in a sport like the NBA, which uses 82 regular-season games and four best-of-seven series in the postseason to determine its champion. Game 7s can be weird.
Just ask the Warriors themselves, who two years ago won a league-record 73 games in the regular season… just to blow a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. In Game 5, Draymond Green was suspended. In Game 7, Curry and Klay Thompson shot a combined 12-of-36 (33%) from the field and 6-of-24 (25%) from three-point range — usually their specialty. Curry was hobbled by a sprained MCL suffered earlier in the playoffs. These things happen. The Warriors were the better team, but the Cavs somehow took the ring.
Had the Warriors simply brought back their existing core, it probably would’ve been enough to win the next year’s title. The same could be true for the Rockets this summer. While Paul, Capela, Trevor Ariza, and Mbah a Moute are all set to enter free agency, the Rockets should have the financial resources to retain each — and it’s very possible that between organic growth in Year Two of the Harden-Paul pairing and better luck in the 2019 playoffs, this core could easily finish the job. New owner Tilman J. Fertitta would need to pay the luxury tax in most scenarios, but to this point he's expressed a willingness to do so.
That said, even if the 2018-19 Rockets could be guaranteed a similar result to the 2017-18 Rockets through the first 98 games, it’s possible the randomness of a Game 7 could strike again. Golden State faced the same dilemma two summers ago, and they decided the best way to address the Game 7 conundrum was to avoid it altogether. They went for the kill shot and added Durant. In their first six postseason series with him (including the 2017 NBA Finals), they never even faced a Game 6 — let alone a Game 7. It took until this year’s Rockets (their seventh postseason series with Durant) for them to finally have a challenger — and this time, the bounces went their way.
If the Rockets simply run it back with the existing core, it’s very possible they could win the 2018-19 title. But as with the 2016 Warriors, the fact that Houston is so close already means Daryl Morey is likely one big move away (LeBron James? Paul George?) from juggernaut status. (For details on the possible salary-cap mechanisms to bring in another star, which would like be via and opt-in-and-trade scenario like the one that sent Paul to Houston on June 28, 2017, check out the Locked on Rockets podcast.)
Another small consolation to the Game 7 loss could be that just as Durant wouldn’t have joined the Warriors had they won the 2016 title, many of the big names available this summer wouldn’t join the Rockets had they won rings in 2018. Star players want to be the missing piece to put a team over the hump, not join an already finished product.
None of this is meant to take away the hurt. The 2018 Rockets are one of the best NBA squads ever not to win a title, and probably the best Houston sports team not to win one. It was all there for the taking, and they lost by mere single digits in a situation where so many variables went laughably wrong. That’s how good they were.
But with that pain comes opportunity. Houston showed the world it belongs by pushing the most talented team in league history to the brink of elimination. That’s an incredible selling point and a great place to start as construction of the 2019 roster begins.
Golden State became the behemoth they are because they used the agony of June 2016 as a unique opportunity to elevate an already championship-level team to historical greatness. That same rare window is now open to Morey, Fertitta, and the Rockets this summer. After all they've done so far, headlined by 76 wins in the 2017-18 campaign and pushing the legendary Warriors to the brink, I wouldn't bet against them.