ON THE COURT

Rockets Report: Team goes 2-1, wraps up regular season this week

James Harden and Chris Paul are cruising to the playoffs. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This week was all about refocusing and staying sharp while the murky Western Conference playoff picture begins to clarify itself. Challenging three potentially playoff bound opponents this week, the Rockets chased the Wizards out of the building before weathering ferocious Portland rally and falling to a desperate Thunder team. Houston has already clinched the best record in the league and has secured home court advantage throughout the playoffs for the first time in Rockets franchise history.

Game 78: Rockets vs Washington Wizards (W, 104-120)

One of the most telling marks of a serious contender is a team’s ability to quickly shake off a poor performance, and Tuesday night the Rockets did just that. Having clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Washington Wizards came into town hungry to improve their seeding but were very quickly turned away at the door by a Houston team that was once again back to full strength. Houston lunged out to what would prove to be an insurmountable 71-49 first half lead. The remainder of the matchup was equally contested, but the damage had already been done. James Harden finished with 38 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists. Clint Capela added 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks.

Game 79: Rockets vs Portland Trail Blazers (W, 96-94)

The last matchup between the Rockets and Trail Blazers was everything you’d expect a one versus three seed to be in terms of competitiveness, so there was some anticipation surrounding this game as far as how the Rockets would perform given last week’s lackluster effort. A 36-17 first quarter quieted that narrative almost immediately, as Portland was simply unable to keep up with the barrage of three-pointers converted by a freneticaly paced Rockets squad. Houston maintained a sizeable lead until about five minutes left, when sloppy play on the Rockets end helped trigger a 19-2 run and erase the lead. Counter-intuitive to the Rockets’ typical philosophy, it was not a three point shot that sealed the game, but rather a Chris Paul dribble-drive layup to pierce through the perimeter-heavy defense with 0.8 seconds left. It was only the seventh game this season the Rockets failed to surpass the 100-point plateau, and Houston is 3-4 in those instances. Paul led the team with 27 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists, while Harden followed with 24 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists.

Game 80: Rockets versus Oklahoma City Thunder (L, 108-102)

Houston’s luck would run out Saturday night against a hungry Thunder team that has yet to clinch a playoff spot in once of the tightest Western Conference races in recent memory. The matchup was a dogfight throughout, until the last few minutes when the Thunder went on an untimely 11-0 run to seal it, marking one of the few season series the Rockets have lost this year. Harden finished with 26 points and 9 assists.

Looking Ahead:

The Rockets finish the season this week, with their final two games against the playoff eliminated Lakers and Kings squads in a Tuesday/Wednesday back-to-back away stretch. The Rockets should use these next two games to tune up their playoff roster and rest whoever necessary. These last two games mean nothing, as the Rockets have already clinched home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Rockets are 2-1 against the Lakers this season and 2-0 against Sacramento, so it’s not a stretch to expect an undefeated final week en route to Houston’s first ever 66-win season.

 

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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