HOUSTON — As the Rockets saw one three-pointer after another clang off the rim over the final 30 minutes of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals Monday, you could hear the cacophony of voices arguing against Houston’s style of play grow louder with each heave.
On a night when Houston missed 27 straight threes and 29 of its final 30 attempts to go 7 for 44 from deep for the game — setting some inglorious NBA records in a 101-92 loss to the Golden State Warriors — why wouldn’t the Rockets drive to the basket or at least take a couple of dribbles before shooting? Why keep flinging up shots from three-point range when it wasn’t working?
Unsurprisingly, Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni came prepared with an answer. Did Houston’s struggles cause him to rethink his trigger-happy philosophy?
“No, because the other team’s doing it,” D’Antoni said with a smile, referencing the 39 three-pointers the Warriors attempted in Game 7. “That’s what you do. That’s where the game is going.
“Now, we should have made some more. But, no, I don’t lose confidence in that.
“We’ve got the right formula. We’ve got to execute it.”
The Rockets certainly didn’t execute it Monday night, leading to an almost comical number of missed shots. Golden State overcame an 11-point halftime deficit to pull out a win on the road, advancing to a fourth straight NBA Finals.
The Rockets got one wide open shot after another — only to see virtually every one bounce away instead of falling through the net.
“We’re just going to keep shooting them,” said James Harden, who went 2 for 13 from three-point range in Game 7 and missed his final 11 attempts. “We’ve done it all year long. The first half, just our energy defensively was different. That created more opportunities for the three, and they went in. As a result of that, we got a double-digit lead going into halftime.
“Those same opportunities were there in the second half. We just didn’t make them. They made tough shots. That’s it, pretty much.”
Except that’s not it. The real question here is why the Rockets missed those shots. The answer explains why the series got away from Houston, and what the Rockets need to do to take the final step toward contention next season.
Houston’s players simply ran out of gas in the second half of Game 7.
D’Antoni quickly pointed out that Houston’s top players had roughly the same number of minutes as Golden State’s stars, and he was right — Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson all were among the six highest-minute players in the series. But expecting Trevor Ariza (who turns 33 next month) and P.J. Tucker (who turned 33 earlier this month) to both play the same number of minutes as their all-star counterparts and remain at peak efficiency is asking too much. Meanwhile, is it completely surprising that Chris Paul, who has had his fair share of injuries in his career and also turned 33 earlier this month, saw his hamstring give out under the strain of trying to go toe-to-toe with Golden State?
Houston undoubtedly caught some bad breaks — far beyond the missed threes in Game 7. Paul’s hamstring strain, which knocked him out of both Games 6 and 7, was the most obvious. Luc Mbah a Moute dislocating his shoulder for a second time earlier in these playoffs was perhaps just as crucial. Mbah a Moute was a critical part of what Houston did this season in winning 65 games and claiming the best record in the NBA. Without him, the Rockets were left to basically play 6 1/2 players (the half being Gerald Green’s 15 minutes or so per game).
That strain clearly caught up to the Rockets as the series wore on, which allowed Golden State to pull away in the second halves of both Games 6 and 7.
“One half of basketball,” Harden said. “Two games, Games 6 and 7. One half of basketball. We just didn’t have the same energy that we had in that first half or the pace. So it’s extremely frustrating.”
This outcome leaves Houston in a tough spot. The Rockets had a brilliant season, and running this roster back should put them squarely in the championship mix next year. But Ariza, Paul and Mbah a Moute are all unrestricted free agents, while Clint Capela is a restricted free agent who should see multiple maximum offers after his excellent season.
Keeping Capela is a no-brainer, regardless of the price tag. Finding the right price point — both in years and dollars — for Ariza, Paul and Mbah a Moute (who will turn 32 in September) will be critical. This is a roster built to win now, and the Rockets need to capitalize on that. But doing so won’t come without risk, given Ariza, Paul and Mbah a Moute — not to mention Tucker, who is under contract — are all entering their mid-30s.
Then, Houston needs to add another piece with its mid-level exception. If the Rockets could get someone like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley or Danny Green, Houston could be looking at a nine-man rotation of Paul, Harden, Ariza, Tucker, Capela, Mbah a Moute, Green, Eric Gordon and another wing defender and shooter.
That kind of depth would allow D’Antoni to go away from playing just seven guys regularly, as he did against Golden State, and would put Houston in a position where, as a long series comes to a close, its shooters don’t run out of juice to hoist up the threes his offense requires.
Houston’s game plan was sound. The shots it got in Game 7 were more than good enough. They simply didn’t go in.
That will make for one long summer, as the Rockets grapple with what could have been. Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey told ESPN after Game 7 that Houston “should have won this game,” and he was right.
But the Rockets didn’t. Now Morey will have a long offseason to focus his efforts on deepening the roster so that, come next May, Houston won’t suffer the same fate again.
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