It didn’t even hurt.
On my knees, face cradled in my hands in disbelief moments after Damien Lillard’s shot hit nothing but net, I realized this loss didn’t hurt. Houston didn’t harbor any real championship aspirations; fandom is in some sense an exercise in consciously irrational exuberance, but no one who watched this team thought they’d be able to put together four perfect performances. There were a few weeks of sublime basketball post-All-Star break that lulled us into a sense that maybe this team had found out how to put it all together before coasting into the playoffs, and they’d find that on/off switch again.
Losing to the Blazers is simply the concrete acknowledgement that they played some good basketball this season but don’t actually have that on/off switch. This should just be about managing expectations for Houston. They didn’t have enough shooting, they didn’t have a deep enough bench, they didn’t have enough coaching, and they didn’t have the on-ball defenders to slow a methodical Blazers offense. Those all became clear in the first two games of the series, and the adjustments necessary to fix those are adjustments that need an offseason to make, not in the middle of a playoff series.
The loss sucks, but it was not much more than a culmination of all the errors we’d seen over the course of the season. It hurt less than Utah ‘97, when we all watched Dream’s last go-round. It hurt less than Dallas ‘05, when we thought we were seeing the Yao/McGrady duo take off after going up 2-0 on Dallas’ home floor. And it hurt less than Utah ‘07, when they went up 2-0 only to lose game 7 on their home floor and I broke countless TV remotes wondering why Yao Ming was having such trouble scoring on Mehmet F’n Okur while Tracy McGrady’s heroics went unrewarded because this was supposed to be the year.
It took awhile, but we saw that Dwight Howard is everything we need him to be and more. What is frustrating is that this season - and this series - didn’t really reveal if Dwight Howard and James Harden are an ideal fit together. The Howard/Harden pick-and-roll has been devastatingly effective, but in limited time. Couch psychology is dangerous, but it just seems like either Howard or Harden or both of them don’t particularly like running pick-and-rolls with each other. If I were a just god of basketball, I’d lock them both in a gym all summer and just have them run the play over and over.
If this series was played 100 times, I’d expect the Rockets to win most of them. That’s not to take anything away from the Blazers and it’s not an argument for saying “regress to the mean” and attempt to stick to the status quo. But to treat the patient you have to diagnose correctly. The Rockets outscored the Blazers cumulatively over the series and lost four games to two. Part of that was late-game decisionmaking and coaching. Part of that, I might suspect, is the high variance of reliance on the three-point shot. On a long enough time horizon it all evens out, but if you take an average three-point shooting team that shoots a lot of threes, the lower percentage of three-point shots can make teams prone to struggling when they’re not falling. The Rockets shot 35.8% from deep during the season and 31.8% from deep against the Blazers. (Portland was slightly above average in defending the 3-point shot during the regular season.) We could say “regress to the mean” and the Rockets win this series.
But the point of this first round playoff exit isn’t about the first round playoff exit. Bringing James Harden and Dwight Howard together wasn’t supposed to result in a team that fights through a tough first round and likely gets beaten by better teams in the second or third rounds. The point of Harden and Howard is championship contention. Portland laid bare the most glaring faults of this Rockets team. What we need now is an offseason of addressing those faults and coming back stronger.
This first-round exit is disappointing, but the team was felled by flaws that were obvious all season long. Hopefully Daryl Morey sees that too - and uses this as an important data point for guiding this offseason.