What a Ride It's Been
Rockets' season comes to an end, but the journey back to title contention has only just begun
HOUSTON - Their run didn’t end the way they wanted or how they’d hoped it would. Then again, 29 NBA teams eventually sing a similar refrain every season. In what was supposed to be a year of growth, the Rockets grew by leaps and bounds. They acquired an All-Star, turbocharged their offense, sewed up a playoff spot and made the No. 1 seed sweat out six, hard fought games. This is not a team that basked in, savored or otherwise enjoyed moral victories. But there’s a circle of life in the NBA that contains certain non-negotiable laws that demand that maybe, just maybe, the Rockets should make an exception just this once.
Houston took a significant step toward its goal of title contention this season. There remains an immense amount of work to be done to actually get there. But when the Rockets reflect upon everything they accomplished this year and juxtapose it with where they were when training camp began on October 1, they’ll rapidly realize, if they haven’t already, that the end of this season should summon far more joy than pain. The reason is simple enough: This really isn’t the end at all – it’s only the beginning.
Houston’s players had a season-long affinity for Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” and though it’s exceedingly doubtful they latched on to that tune because of its poetic poignancy, there’s no denying the fact it possesses a certain theme that came to define the Rockets’ season. Prior to the blockbuster deal that brought James Harden to Houston, this was a team projected to finish in the nether regions of the Western Conference. Would they have outperformed those predictions? Probably. That’s kind of what the Rockets of recent vintage tend to do. Regardless, this much seemed clear: Houston appeared closer to the bottom than it had been in many a season.
Then came Harden and his stunning, spectacular arrival that spawned shades of Jordan. Omer Asik similarly wasted little time making his presence felt, opening the season with his “That’s why we (bleeping) got him!!!” game. Chandler Parsons became the bargain of the century. Jeremy Lin just got better and better. Carlos Delfino’s voice whispered while his game roared. Patrick Beverley transitioned from Russian basketball to Rockets’ revelation. And on and on it went. There were the typical peaks and valleys that come with a young team navigating its way through its first season together. What was not typical, however: How quickly it all came together. The Rockets rode their scoreboard-scorching offense to the ninth-best point differential in the league while becoming one of the youngest teams in recent NBA history to make the playoffs.
There was even poetry to be found in Houston’s postseason opponent. Three years ago the similarly spry, green and fresh-faced Thunder found themselves in a 1 versus 8 first round matchup against the eventual champion Lakers. Oklahoma City succumbed in six games as well. That common starting point wasn’t lost on Kevin Durant.
“They remind me of us from a few years back,” he said, following the Thunder’s 103-94 series clinching win Friday night. “They are going to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.”
That is of course the plan. And though nothing in this league, nor in this life, is ever guaranteed, Houston’s stable of young and still improving talent seems about as solid a bet as any on which to rely, especially given the fact it will be paired with max-level cap room to utilize this summer. To be sure, the stakes have now been raised. But good health and good fortune permitting, the Rockets have every reason to believe next season will bear witness to another step forward just as significant as the one taken this year.
Does that ease the pain of falling short and seeing the ride come to an end right this second? It won’t and it shouldn’t. That sting promises to push and to prod the entire organization through those long summer sessions so vital to personal, professional and physical improvement. But the bitter taste of defeat must be mixed with the proper dose of perspective as well. This marks only the end of the first leg of a long journey. Mourn its conclusion but cherish what it represents as well. The Rockets’ season is over. But this team’s odyssey toward something far greater has only just begun.
(On Kevin Durant, Reggie Jackson and Kevin Martin’s play) “Reggie really hurt us. Made plays out in the paint. K-Mart had a great stint in the first half. We had a really good start. It really kind of got him up and KD (Kevin Durant) made some shots late and those three guys…I just really think Reggie Jackson had a good game for them.”
(On the Rockets play) “No, this is not unusual. Our turnovers kicked our tails again. When you have live ball turnovers, I said it all year, when you have live ball turnovers, top of the key, free throw line extended. There is no defense of that. They had 23 points off of our live ball turnovers. We’ve had problems with that on and off all year and the problem with it, when you turn it over; it’s 3 on 1, 3 on 2, 4 on 3. It’s just odd man breaks and they did a pretty good job scoring on that. For us, which has happened off and on all year, the ball gets a little sticky. We just got to keep trusting and moving. I thought our guys got a little tired. We went to the bench a couple times. Nobody wants to hear about who’s not playing. We had enough guys out there. I thought we had enough looks. I thought we did a good enough job to put ourselves in a position to win that game.”
(On the team’s energy) “It’s always tough. Every game is always tough to keep up on a consistent level. We showed we can do it throughout the series, throughout the year and we just can’t give up on offense. We got to keep running our stuff, get stops, get out of transition, and do what we do best. They (Thunder) made some big plays. Their guys stepped up and made some big shots on our rotation but when we have a lead like that we need to we got to learn how to keep it and keep out in front of those guys and not let them extend their lead.”
(On if the Thunder’s defense was better than last game which contributed to the loss) “I think it was just our silly mistakes. Our spacing at times was poor, careless passes. They didn’t do much different. They went small. They did pretty much the same thing they were doing all series long but I just think it was more of us being careless with the ball trying to make home run plays instead of just trying to make the simple plan.”
(On if it feels similar to be in a playoff position as he previously was with the Thunder) “Definitely. We were one of the youngest teams in the league at that point. We lost in a similar way in a game 6 at home. So, now we’re going to use the summertime to get better. We’re going to hang out with each other, work out with each other and just get better. We’ll be ready for next year. We have an entire summer together to just get to know each other and actually hang out and build from this. This is definitely a great learning experience. We can’t hold our heads on the floor. We’ll just use the summertime to get better.”
(On what the summer time will do for the team) “Confidence, chemistry, everything. You know, kind of knowing where each other will be on the court. Getting a feel for each other off the court will help us just as much on the court. So, it’s going to help us build our relationship up. We have a core group of guys that loves to work and wants to win. Like I said, this series was definitely a good thing for us.”
(On team growth) “We got better throughout the series. It’s a tough thing to do to come back 3-0. It’s never been done before, but we showed resilience, we showed fight. We had that game. We were up 10 in the third quarter, we showed that we can play with those guys and it slipped away.”
(On 2nd half, where the Thunder were able to pull away) “They (Thunder) were able to pull away. We just couldn't hit shots. They (Thunder) came into a hostile environment and won a huge game so credit to them.”
(On the Rockets having good runs throughout the game, but playing flat in the fourth) “That just seems to be our thing. We put together great spurts, but we have a tough time maintaining it and sustaining it. So that’s where our team needs to go (improve upon).
(On the difference tonight) “They (Thunder) went on a run. They went on a 9-0 or 10-2 run at the beginning of the fourth and it hurt us a little bit.”
(On how painful the loss is) “I'm at a loss for words right now. I don't know. My mind is set to play game 7. It just hurts when you go out there and give your all every game. It’s frustrating right now.”
(On the Rockets having good runs in 1st and 3rd, but not sustaining) “It’s the playoffs, you can’t have let downs. We had a minor set back in the fourth quarter and against good teams it’s hard to recover from that and we couldn't recover.”
(On the tough loss) “We played good and they came out at us in the 4th quarter. It was like a 7- or 9-point run. They (Thunder) were making shots and we were missing shots. They got the win. It's a good win for them; they played hard.
(On whether or not free throws caused the loss) “No. They (Thunder) made shots. They made their run in the 4th quarter. Even without (Russell) Westbrook, they are still a good team. They made their run.
(On whether the Thunder's defense gave the Rockets problems in the 4th quarter) “I really didn't see that. They (Thunder) were really being physical. That was one thing that they were doing. They were getting real physical last game too. We got a couple turnovers. They had their run. At the end they made some good shots too. They played really good as a team.
(On his injury) “I was going to play but I fractured my ankle (it’s been injured) for the last fifteen days. I was going to go through the pain but now we have gotten to a point where we can’t control it anymore with medicine and stuff like that. It sucks because I want to help the team but it is what it is.”
(On the moment when he aggravated his ankle) “I was talking to the guys and when I dunked it, when I landed, after that I felt something was wrong. I didn’t hear a crack or anything like that but when I landed I felt something was wrong. I asked the coach not to go to the bench. As soon as I went to the bench, James (Harden) made a fifth foul so I had to go again. After that, it never was the same and then before Game 5, we tried to get all the medicine again and all the medicine to numb it but it never happened. I was never able to get rid of the pain and when I tried to go onto the court it just wasn’t the same so it was time to stop.”
(On his emotions on the results of his MRI) “To tell you the truth, (I was thinking) working is almost over so I have a surgery to clear it up because in my mind it was just couple of spurs, a fractured line coming from the spur. But, having the MRI, just knowing that the bone was cracked and it was something that would make me stop for 4 or 6 months, it just felt different. Especially because I like to play for the international teams but now I’m not going to be able to go until at least September.”
(On if he is worried his injury will affect him next season) “My main goal is to be ready for next year. To take care of my body and try to come back and be ready.”
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER COACH SCOTT BROOKS
(Opening quote) “I thought that was one of our best Thunder team wins that we’ve had all season. I thought the guys really laid everything on the line and that’s what playoff basketball is all about, that’s what team basketball is all about. I liked the guys’ commitment to helping each other out. K-Mart(Kevin Martin) started us off with just a incredible first half. He didn’t make but one shot last game and they were good looks and I believed in him and the most important people who believed in him were his teammates. He made those shots, but I thought all the team made him make those shots and that’s a true character win for our guys. I thought it was well played, give them(Rockets) credit, they played a good basketball series. They made us make some adjustments and I think our guys did a good job making those adjustments. I thought our effort was good, I thought our team spirit was at the highest level it’s been all series.”
(On the Thunders defense in the fourth quarter) “I thought the biggest thing was that every pass was contested, every shot was contested and every catch was felt by our guys. Our guys got into them. I told them at the third quarter break that if your man doesn’t feel you, you’re not doing you’re job and you’ve disappointed your teammates. I thought the guys made each (Rockets) player feel them. You knew you were being guarded by one of our players and that’s what we do. That’s how we play.”
(On Reggie Jackson’s play) “I give Reggie a lot of credit. We’ve said it for a week now, its unfortunate that we don’t have one of the best players in basketball with Russell (Westbrook) and he has inspired us. He’s taken us to places that we are very thankful that we’ve been able to do. For Reggie to come in and step in and play basically four solid basketball games at the hardest position in basketball as the point guard. He led us throughout the game tonight. He made big plays, big passes and made big stops, and that’s what point guards do. I thought he was terrific tonight, nearly a triple double. It’s taken a couple of games. We’re going to make excuses but you lose a big part of your offense, a big part of your spirit, and he (Reggie Jackson) has done a great job of filling in and he’s not a feeler, he’s a guy that can continue to lead us and continue to get better as the series go on.”
(On Derek Fisher’s influence on the team) “It really makes no sense for me to defend Fish (Derek Fisher), what he brings to our team. It always seems like I have to defend him, but I tell you what, when we brought him in last year it really helped us. Thank God he was available and we made the trade and we needed another player, but he has made our team better. His common influence is incredible, will to win, and his spirit of doing it everyday is something that all teams should strive to play like and when we brought him in, Reggie’s became a better player and that’s not a coincidence. What I saw tonight was some of the most inspiring play I’ve ever seen in all my playing time and in coaching. The guy laid everything on the line. He was probably one of the best players in the game. You guys could see it out here. James (Harden) is one of the best players and he was guarding him and making him make tough shots and making him make tough decisions and for him to do that every single play down the court is a testament to his character. To be able to do that for 27 years … that was a joke (laughter).”
(On potential of the Houston Rockets) “They play hard, they play well, they have a good star player. They’re young but we’re young Kevin(Durant) is 24, Russell (Westbrook)is 24, Serge (Ibaka) is 23, Reggie (Jackson) is 22. So if you use young as a crutch then you’re not going to get much better. When you sign up to play in the NBA, you’re an NBA player. You’re not the draft pick. Kevin was a second player picked but he’s not the second player, we count him as one of our players and we treat all our players like NBA players. We don’t look at their age. Hustle has nothing to do with age, execution has nothing to do with age. They get experience one day at a time, that’s obvious but they play hard. Rockets, they play hard and they’re going to be good for a long time.”
(On Thunders’ free throw shooting) “16 for 16, we needed every one of them. One of the things that we are a good free throw shooting team. Our guys improve. We feel like it’s a very important part of the game. We work on it. It’s not something that we hope to get better at. We work at it everyday. All of our consistent habits are worked on everyday and free throws we do it every single day, every shoot around, every practice and the guys improve.”
(On Thunders bench effectiveness) “I just think they play with the respect for the game that they were going to get rewarded. When you respect the game, the game always rewards you. When you disrespect it, it doesn’t give you what you want and that’s the good thing. I’ve always felt that as a player. I gave it everything I had and I was rewarded for playing a lot of years with a lot of great players. I think that’s what you do. You respect the game and you respect your teammates and you try to do the best you can every possession. I like what we do, I like what our guys are about. The lineup change, that was a decision I made, and that was a decision I could’ve made earlier, but we made it. We made a lineup change in Game 3. I wasn’t going to put Reggie in a position to make two lineup changes when he’s the point guard which is the toughest position. Now we have to make a change with two players. Perk (Kendrick Perkins) has been terrific and I defend him because I love what he brings. We win basketball games ever since we got him. We went to the Finals because of him. This series was a hard series for him but his commitment to still cheer his teammates on in the second half shows that he’s about winning and playing Memphis he’s going to play every minute he deserves and he’s ready for that challenge.”
(On the rest of the teams play easing pressure on Kevin Durant) “When we hit shots, like everything else, every thing looks better. I have better play calls all of a sudden. The point guard looks better when we make shots. We wanted to win that last game. We wanted to win on our home court. I love Houston, I have friends and family, but I didn’t want to come back here. We wanted to do that (win). I felt that that was part of the emotions of that game. We wanted to win that game. When we shoot the ball you have to shoot it with freedom and we didn’t have that. When we started missing shots, that arm became a heavy arm. Kevin (Durant) got frustrated, you very rarely see Kevin get frustrated. He got frustrated in that he wanted to win that game for our fans so bad.”
(On his first half offense) “It was just coming in there, trying to set a tone. The last 48 hours after game five, I couldn't even look my teammates in the eye because I felt so bad. It was going in there and playing like I have been in my career and jump-starting us to a victory.
(On the Thunder play) “This was big team win on both sides of the court. Serge (Ibaka) played great, Reggie (Jackson), D-Fish (Derek Fisher), everybody played their role to the best of their abilities tonight and we moved on with a win.”
(On the Rockets and their effort and play) “They played great the whole series and they had a swag about them even when they were down three-nothing. A lot of that had to do with (Russell) Westbrook not being on the court. They played pretty good.”
(On clinching the series here in Houston) “It's just satisfying to get a victory. Nobody puts more pressure on themselves then me and you can ask this team. I felt bad and wanted to come in here and just play as a team.
(On the game) “It just felt great to get the win. I was just happy to pick up the win and finally get this series over. You have to give credit to Houston. They played hard and really battled. Everybody on this team are solid players and they know what they do and bring to this team. We have a good vibe for each other and this was a series where we just got up and down and I think we did a good job of executing our sets. We just played more free-flowing ball and we connected and made some bug shots. We had to win this game with our defense. I believe it was 74-73 and we had to get some stops and then went up by seven and coach kept preaching to us about getting stops. Everybody kept locking in defensively, and we needed that because we knew the offense would come.
(On Kevin Martin's play) “Oh man. He's been on himself all series. He's a gut that can really feel it up and he hasn't really been down on himself but you can tell he hasn't been happy with his performance so it was good for him to get some shots going. He had a big first half for us and just had a big game all around.
(On what Derek Fisher means to the team and him) “Derek Fisher sees the game from a different aspect. As a young player and a young guard in this league, sometimes it stills moves fast for me, so he helps me slow it down for me. Him and the rest of the team encourage me to attack and he brings tremendous confidence to this team and to me. He is a great mentor. You can't tell (he's the oldest guy on the team). I think his next contract, they should sign him to a four year. There's a mental battle to this game and things start to slow down and your body starts to wear and tear, but mentally I haven't seen anybody prepare like him. E tells himself he can do things that his body probably shouldn't. He's a great competitor and a great leader for us.”
(On closing out the series) “It was pretty sweet to do on the road. I knew it was going to take a total team effort. This Rockets team had been the team the last couple of games and they had contributions from several different guys. I knew for us to close this team out, it was going to require that type of effort from us and that's what we got tonight. Kevin Martin really set the tone offensively for us in the first half and defensively he was aggressive and grinding. In the second half the defense caught up to what we were doing and then we were able to break the game open.”
(On his big moments against the Rockets) ”It's never about a particular team, but it's always just about doing my job to help my team win. When you're on the road in the playoffs, the reason why it's so much fun is because the fans hate you so much and while you're getting booed and people say the most outlandish things that kids probably shouldn't here. It requires you to go to a deeper level and focus and intensity, that's the great part about being in the playoffs.”
Houston registered another sold out crowd of 18,357 for tonight’s game. Dating back to the regular season, the Rockets had a sellout in 13 of the final 18 outings at Toyota Center.
Oklahoma City closed out the series 4-2 following a 103-94 win over Houston tonight. The Thunder opened the fourth quarter on a 14-4 run to take a double-digit lead and never looked back. The Memphis Grizzlies travel to Oklahoma City on Sunday, May 5 for a 12:00 p.m. start on ABC.
The Rockets, who went 14-of-32 (.438) from downtown tonight, made a record-high 70 3-pointers in this series (.347, 70-202 3FG). Houston’s previous mark for a six-game series was 45 set against Utah back in 1997. The 70 treys even surpassed Houston’s all-time high for a seven-game series of 62 set vs. Seattle also in 1997.
Over the three games in Houston, the Rockets outscored the Thunder by an 88-58 count in the third quarter.
The Thunder went 16-for-16 from the free throw line tonight. The most free throws made without a miss against the Rockets in their postseason history is 17-of-17 vs. Portland (4/26/09).
James Harden recorded 26 points (7-22 FG, 4-10 3FG, 8-11 FT), matched his postseason-best seven assists, had four rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots tonight. Harden dished a career-high seven assists twice before (last on 6/2/12 vs. San Antonio).
Chandler Parsons finished 26 points (8-14 FG, 3-4 FT), seven rebounds and three assists tonight, which included setting his playoff career high of six 3-pointers made (6-8 3FG).
Omer Asik registered 13 points (3-7 FG, 7-12 FT), 13 rebounds and two blocked shots. Asik, who posted a playoff-best 21 points (4-6 FG, 13-18 FT) and 11 boards in Game Five at Oklahoma City (5/1/13), collected the first three double-doubles of his playoff career in this series.
Kevin Durant totaled 27 points (11-23 FG, 3-9 3FG, 2-2 FT), eight rebounds, six assists and two steals tonight. This series, Durant surpassed Shawn Kemp for the third most career postseason points in franchise history. The all-time top-four are as follows: Gary Payton (1,668), Gus Williams (1,602), Durant (1,402) and Kemp (1,386). Durant has also recorded 20-plus points in 32 consecutive playoff games (5/15/11-5/3/13).
Kevin Martin netted 25 points (7-13 FG, 3-5 3FG, 8-8 FT) tonight, which came up just one point shy of his playoff best. Martin recorded a playoff-career-high 26 points (7-15 FG, 2-4 3FG, 10-10 FT) in Game Two of the First Round at San Antonio (4/25/06).
Reggie Jackson, who totaled a playoff-career-high 20 points (7-15 FG, 4-6 FT) in Game Five at Oklahoma City (5/1/13), chipped in with 17 points (7-15 FG), a game-high eight assists and seven boards tonight.
Nick Collison came off the bench with 10 points (4-8 FG) and a team-high nine rebounds. Collison helped the Thunder bench outscore the Rockets reserves by a 46-11 margin and take a 17-8 edge off the boards.