Playoffs 2019 West Semifinals: Warriors (1) vs. Rockets (4)

Rockets again collapse against Warriors, big questions loom

Eliminated by the Warriors for the fourth time in five years, the Rockets must decide how to move on

HOUSTON — The last time they sipped champagne in this city, when it was poured by the great Hakeem Olajuwon, they adopted a slogan that defined their grit and composure and championship desire.

But the term “Clutch City” took on entirely different meaning this time around for the Rockets. Instead of grabbing a Larry O’Brien trophy — and let’s put this as delicately as possible — the Rockets put their hands around … something else. Like, a certain body part below their chin. How else to describe what happened down the stretch of this playoff series against the Warriors, why they couldn’t beat a team without Kevin Durant for the final five quarters, and especially how they crashed in the, ahem … clutch moments on their home floor Friday?

Yes, it’s true the Warriors demonstrated for 48 minutes how you should never underestimate the heart of a champion — with a nod to former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich — and Steph Curry awakened from his shooting slumber and scoreless first half with a fourth-quarter flourish in the Warriors’ 118-113 victory at Toyota Center. This was a testament to the two-time defending champions’ experience and most of all their pride. Give the Warriors that.

But the Rockets lost this series as much, if not more, than the Warriors won it. This was, pure and simply, a colossal collapse; a blown opportunity that Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni rightly said will “leave a mark,” perhaps on the franchise’s throat.

They had every reason to win the last two games and did everything to lose them. More unforgivably, they were at home Friday, before their crowd, with the healthier — and arguably better — team given the circumstances, and failed in every sense. What exactly was that?

“We’re going home,” said Chris Paul. “That’s what it is.”

In the immediate aftermath of Warriors’ clinching Game 6 victory, the scene in the hallway leading to each locker room proved telling. On one end, the Warriors squealed like schoolyard kids at recess, with high-fives flying, impromptu hugs shared and plenty of strut and sashay.

On the other end, a stream of zombies walked somberly in single file. A state of complete shock. James Harden wore a stone face like the Moai statues on Easter Island. Austin Rivers was in tears. PJ Tucker never looked up, and somehow didn’t bump into something or someone.

Paul dressed in record time for him — did he even take a shower? — and briskly made his way through his postgame press conference before quickly slipping out the door.

We lost. And that’s stupid.

Rockets guard Chris Paul

Their heads surely ached with the still-fresh sounds and sights of Curry dropping 3-pointers in their face and the Warriors making defensive stops and the Rockets themselves turning meeker by the minute as the game creeped to a close. This is how their season ended, deflating during the stretch.

When a team shows slumped shoulders and speaks in monotone and sits in a locker room that has all the charm of a funeral home, then you know what they must know, in their hearts: They gagged.

“We lost,” said Paul, before muttering, “and that’s stupid.”

Understand that the Rockets not only couldn’t beat the Warriors without Durant, but Golden State didn’t have Curry, in a sense, for roughly three of those five Durant-less quarters. Curry couldn’t even make layups. Seriously, that’s the Warriors without their two best players. And the Rockets couldn’t outscore them, couldn’t figure them out, couldn’t prevent this collapse.

“We didn’t play smart enough and at times, not hard enough,” said Tucker.

Also consider this: The shortchanged Warriors in Game 6 were forced to give significant minutes to old Andre Iguodala (who made the Rockets pay for leaving him open with five shots from deep), old Andrew Bogut, a G-league last season (Alfonzo McKinnie), a career 4.5 scorer (Kevon Looney), the undrafted Quinn Cook and a regressing second rounder in Jordan Bell … and never trailed by more than seven points. Those role players out-hustled the Rockets and played with poise.

Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 60 and tag-teamed the Rockets to an ultimate death, with Thompson hitting early, scoring 21 of his 27 in the first half and keeping the Warriors close. This was crucial, because Curry fought through foul trouble, playing only 12 minutes, and a case of the shooting yips.

Yet Curry was the closer with 23 of his 33 points in just nine minutes of fourth-quarter playing time. It was a fantastic flurry of buckets and guts. That marked a career playoff-high for any quarter, for a player whose postseasons have been marked by stretches of less than spectacular shooting; this series running much of the same. But by sprinting off screens and shaking free of the defense, Curry shot 6-for-8, made all eight free throw attempts and ripped out Houston’s heart.

“That man is a competitor and a champion,” said Thompson. “He plays with such great heart. His composure is unbelievable.”

The Rockets offered no resistance, even when they looked for their leaders. Harden led the league in scoring this regular season, when he played MVP-quality basketball, but was outplayed by Curry when it counted. Harden missed five free throws and had six turnovers for the game, then walked off the floor without shaking hands at the buzzer.

This face-palm by the Rockets actually began with slightly more than two minutes left in the third quarter in Game Five when Durant grabbed his strained calf and walked away from the second-round series for good. The Rockets crumbled in that game, when Harden took only three shots in the fourth quarter, and then again in this one.

“We let opportunities slip away, opportunities in the last game, opportunities in Game 1 and 2,” Harden said.

His legacy is solidified by the last four seasons: he won an MVP, finished second in another season and will either win another award this season or finish runner-up again. But there’s another stigma growing as well in his basketball portfolio: Playoff failure. Last spring against the Warriors, Harden misfired in the final two playoff games, both losses. This time, he had no fourth-quarter answers in the last two games, both tight finishes.

Paul scored 27 points Friday, but this was a case of too little, too late. He didn’t post a signature game this series and once again failed to reach the NBA Finals, as he now begins to show signs of depreciation.

Remember when the Rockets were punishing the Warriors in this series by pounding them in the paint? Tucker was a menace until he was tamed the last two games by Looney. The backup big pitched in to keep Tucker off the glass Friday (just four rebounds) and surprised the Rockets by scoring 14 points.

And that was a wrap. The arena turned quiet, the Rockets went quieter.

“I don’t think anyone in this locker room thought this was going to be our last game of the season,” said Gerald Green.

With Harden, Paul, Tucker, Eric Gordon and Clint Capela, the Rockets aren’t hurting for talent, and the 3-point-happy system by D’Antoni maximizes the skills of his team. Is that system that can win a championship? Do the Rockets’ core players, especially Harden and Paul, have a championship gene running through their bodies, or not? All are fair questions and concerns today, one of mourning for the Rockets.

“You play to win or you play not to lose,” said D’Antoni. “They’re playing to win. We need to get that mentality.”

Somewhat surprisingly, less than an hour after the game, Harden mentioned how “it was a pretty good year for us.” Talk about poor timing. This “year” ended poorly and sourly and had all the elements of a team that couldn’t handle urgency or opportunity. But maybe the Rockets’ own expectations weren’t high to begin with.

Houston saw a chance and apparently it spooked them. Maybe it didn’t matter if Durant played or not. The Warriors have what the Rockets never showed last year, or this year, and Toyota Center once again served as a final resting place for the home team.

Except this time, the knife plunged deeper.

“This is not something you get over it,” D’Antoni said. “This hurts.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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