In a case of dramatic irony, the Houston Rockets’ small-ball experiment — and maybe the Mike D’Antoni era in Houston — came to an end because their taller opponents rained threes on them.
The Los Angeles Lakers were a bottom 10 team in the league in three-point shooting percentage during the regular season, but they shot 19-of-37 from three (51.4%) Saturday against a Houston defense forced to scramble and often unable to contest the shot.
Add on top of that the Lakers got out in transition far more than the small-ball Rockets (11 more fast break points) and played their best defense of the series, and this game wasn’t close.
The Lakers raced out to a double-digit lead in the opening minutes and were never seriously threatened the rest of the way on their way to a 119-96 thrashing of the Rockets in Game 5 of their second-round series. The Lakers take the series 4-1 with the win, sweeping four straight from the Rockets after Houston got the series opener.
The Lakers advance to the conference finals, where they will face the Clippers or Nuggets. The Western Conference Finals will begin next Wednesday (if the Clippers close it out in six games on Sunday) or Friday (if L.A./Denver goes seven).
The Lakers sent a message to whoever they will face on Saturday night with as dominant a performance as we have seen in the bubble. Early in the third, the Rockets cut the lead to seven, then the Lakers went on a 15-0 run and never looked back. LeBron James had 29 points on 9-of-18 shooting, plus 11 rebounds and seven assists.
Los Angeles also reminded everyone they are a defensive force in this game.
Houston heads into the offseason with a lot of questions.
At the top of the list, will D’Antoni be back as their coach? His contract expires at the end of this season and the buzz around the league all season has been that there would be a parting of the ways.
Mike D'Antoni on whether his run with the Rockets is over: "We’ll see what happens. I had four years. Hopefully it keeps going, but you just never know." He definitely wants to continue coaching, whether it's in Houston or elsewhere.
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) September 13, 2020
If not D’Antoni, look for the Rockets to try and lure Jeff Van Gundy out of the broadcast booth to take over the team, suggests Marc Stein of the New York Times.
The next question becomes, do they stick with the small-ball roster and try to win that way? James Harden doesn’t sound ready to abandon the plan.
“We never really gave ourselves a chance,” Harden said postgame, via Ben Golliver of the Washington Post. “That’s rebounding, our switches, our offensive movement. That’s on us. If we’d given ourselves a chance and they beat us, we might have needed to switch it up.”
Whether they want to change or not, Houston may not have another option here. They have painted themselves into this corner financially and may not be able to get out.
Westbrook struggled in this series, and while part of that was due to the quad injury he battled through in the bubble, his efficiency slipped this season, and his fit with James Harden was in question before the playoffs started.
That said, the Rockets may have to make it work. Last summer the Rockets traded Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook (sending two first-round picks to OKC in the deal) and Westbrook makes $41.3 million next season, $44.2 million the season after that, and $47 million in the third year ($132.5 million total, for those of you scoring at home).
Or, look at it this way: The Rockets are on the hook to pay the trio of Harden, Westbrook, and Eric Gordon $98.6 million next season, $106.8 million the following season, and $113.9 million in the three years. Just those three guys.
No contract is untradeable, but to get out from under that the Rockets would have to take on other bad contracts plus send out picks/young players as sweeteners to their trade partners. The Rockets don’t have a lot of those assets left in the cupboard.
Houston may have to run it back with small ball next season, whether they wanted to or not.
The limits of how far that can take them in a West with LeBron and Anthony Davis was made clear on Saturday night.