ORLANDO, Fla. -- Russell Westbrook and James Harden are back in all too familiar place in the playoffs.
The former Kia MVPs have to be tired of this space.
Coming up short routinely in the postseason carries an extra burden for superstars.
Doing it with two superstars -- old friends and former teammates in their first year reunited after last summer’s blockbuster trade -- only intensifies the scrutiny. Harden has taken soul-crushing back-to-back playoff losses at the hands of Golden State, while Westbrook only emerged this year from the first round for the first time since Kevin Durant exited Oklahoma City.
And now they have to try to recover from a dismal first three quarters in Game 4 and hang on to the energy of a fourth-quarter surge that proved there was still signs of life coming from a seemingly flattened bunch.
Voices were raised in the Rockets’ locker room after the game, the gravity of their situation no doubt weighing on everyone. The real heavy dialogue, however, starts now.
Westbrook and Harden have to convince each other, and their supporting cast, that there is still a chance that this bubble odyssey isn’t over.
“The conversation is, number one, take care of the play in front of you,” Westbrook said. “It’s obviously win or go home, so you have to be able to make sure you come out and have that mindset. And it’s one game at a time, especially here down in the bubble.
“It’s a different scenario than any other playoffs, so to be able to take our time and make sure we take advantage of our size and our speed. We have to do it if we want to win. We just have to come back to what gives us the best chance of winning. And that conversation starts tonight and tomorrow and hopefully, we can take care of business the next game.”
After winning Game 1, the business of upsetting the No. 1-seeded Lakers seem like a distinct possibility. The environment, the circumstances and the momentum after their Game 7 win over Oklahoma City in the first round was all in the Rockets’ favor.
But in the span of a few days it all came apart. The Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, made their adjustments to the Rockets’ small-ball scheme. And then Rockets starter Danuel House Jr. missed Games 3 and 4 while the league is reportedly investigating a potential violation of the bubble protocol at the Rockets’ team hotel.
Asking Harden and Westbrook for explanations as to why the Rockets came out so flat in the first three quarters of a game with so much riding on it was really a rhetorical exercise. They didn’t have to say what most everyone else is thinking.
“I don’t have an explanation for you,” Westbrook said. “But there should have been a sense of urgency on everybody’s part. But we fought, which was good. And we know what we have to do. It’s going to take a lot of effort, it’s going to take everyone being uncomfortable in their role and making sure we understand we all have to sacrifice, you know, some of the things we may love to do. But we’ve got to scramble, that gives us the best chance to win games.”
It’s going to take everyone being uncomfortable in their role and making sure we understand we all have to sacrifice.”
Asked to elaborate on those sacrifices that needed to be made, Westbrook caught himself in mid-sentence.
“I’m not, I’m not … Coach has to make that decision individually,” Westbrook said. “I know I can’t speak for anybody else, but just for myself … just making sure that I do what I need to do, bringing my energy and effort and competing on a very, very high level for 48 minutes is what I need to make sure I need to do.”
The referendum on this dynamic duo, this team and really this era of Rockets basketball will have to wait. They'll have at least one more chance to exhaust whatever they have left to fend off the coming Lakers’ knockout punch.
“I mean, there’s nothing we can do about it now,” Harden said. “We just got to be ready for Game 5 and bring that same energy [from the fourth quarter of Game 4] and have it curry over to Game 5.”
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