The saying goes that lightning never strikes in the same place twice.
Technically, Los Angeles and Portland aren’t the same place.
Don’t tell the Houston Rockets. They just re-created their great escape from danger in the 2015 NBA Playoffs. Some of the specific details were different, but the larger resurrection was very much the same.
If the Milwaukee Bucks, Washington Wizards, and “can’t-finish-games” Indiana Pacers are the most exasperating teams in the Eastern Conference, and if the Sacramento Kings’ off-court dysfunction is topped by no other NBA team, they’re still all vying for second place relative to the Houston Rockets.
The category: most thoroughly exasperating NBA team.
It’s one thing for a team to consistently leave a national audience speechless for all the wrong reasons. The Rockets have that special capacity to leave observers — paid or paying, it doesn’t matter — in a state of shock for both bad AND good reasons.
A reminder of this reality unfolded Thursday night at the Moda Center in Portland.
Yet again, the NBA community was writing the Rockets’ obituary — not without good reason.
Yet again, with the body mostly covered in freshly-shoveled dirt, the Rockets — six feet under but not fully smothered — emerged from a comatose state, pushed the dirt to the side, and climbed out of the grave. Their season — seemingly at an end — gained a fresh injection of hope.
Yes, it’s maddening and bewildering, but it remains at least somewhat impressive that a team can continue to rescue itself to some degree. Other imploding teams don’t know how to arrest a freefall, but the Rockets know how this is done.
What’s even more laudable about Houston’s Harry Houdini act in the Northwest on Thursday night?
It was accomplished in a very different way, compared to last May at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
You remember Game 6. We all remember Game 6.
The Houston Rockets — uninspired on defense for almost the entire Western Conference semifinal series against the Los Angeles Clippers — were folding the tent, or at least doing a mean impression of the act. Eviscerated on defense in three prior losses to the Clips, one of them in which Chris Paul didn’t even play, the Rockets were about to lose a six-game series by mounting absolutely no resistance to their opponent in any of their three road games. The Clippers won Games 3 and 4 at home by huge margins, so when L.A. built an 89-70 lead with 2:20 left in the third quarter, not a soul felt that the Clippers would be denied the first conference finals appearance in franchise history.
Then it happened.
The Rockets — still down 12 with 7:30 left — roared down the stretch to claim a 119-107 win. Not only did Houston win; it removed any and all drama from the final two minutes. This runaway — for the Clippers — was well in hand for the Rockets as the final minute dripped away.
What made the rally all the more remarkable? James Harden was benched for most of it.
Josh Smith — perhaps spooking the Clippers into acquiring him in the offseason — helped kick-start the rally. Corey Brewer joined in the push. Dwight Howard, who got T-ed up in the third quarter and seemed utterly disinterested in his team’s season, picked himself up and became another central engine in that Rocket-fueled revival.
A few days later, the Rockets were celebrating a trip to the West Finals. It was impossible to believe and even harder to understand, but it happened.
Now, we have another Rocket resurrection to ponder — also on the West Coast, just in a different state and a more forested environment.
The Portland Trail Blazers had hammered the Houston Rockets twice in the days before the All-Star break. A 96-79 winner in Houston and a 116-103 victor at home, the Blazers had surged past the Rockets in the race for the seventh seed in the West. After Houston lost to Utah earlier in the week, the Rockets had fallen out of a playoff position. The Blazers and Jazz had overtaken them in the chase for the final postseason slots.
Therefore, when Portland — the team that’s been the talk of the NBA the past week, the team which clubbed the Golden State Warriors by 32 points a week ago — amassed a 72-51 third-quarter lead, the story had been written. The gamers were about to be filed on press row. The Blazers’ blended team game made the selfish and individualistic Rockets look utterly inept, as had been the case two times earlier this February. Portland was going to continue to motor ahead, perhaps enough to get a 6 seed in the West. The Rockets would recede even more into the background, joining Utah in a desperate two-team scramble for the eighth seed.
This time, James Harden wasn’t benched. This time, J.B. Bickerstaff and not Kevin McHale coached the Rockets. Yet, those differences didn’t figure to matter. The hottest non-Golden State, non-San Antonio team in the league — with Damian Lillard in full flight — was on a roll, playing at home. The 21-point margin in the third quarter wasn’t just the product of Houston being deficient; Portland established a high standard.
Once again, life came full circle.
Not a soul in the building thought Houston would come back at that point in time. Everything that has made the Rockets such a difficult team to watch — for analysts and casual fans alike — made it impossible to retain any faith in this team… as had been the case with 2:20 left in Game 6 last May in Southern California.
Once again, Houston unsheathed this remarkable capacity for resurrection.
On a day when fresh reports emerged of James Harden wanting Kevin McHale and Dwight Howard gone, Harden took it upon himself to lift the Rockets out of the grave. He poured in 46 points and tossed in multiple three-pointers to immediately change the tenor of the game. Harden scored 14 straight Houston points and became everything he wasn’t in Game 6 against the Clippers.
Seeing their star emerge as a scorer, the rest of the Rockets became emboldened and alert on defense. The thrill of the hunt — making a king-sized comeback on the road in an impossible situation — energized the Rockets. They swamped the Blazers in short order, no longer creating a narrative of self-destruction, but of awesomely overwhelming quality.
The realities spoke for themselves:
Where has this level of effort and focus been from the Rockets for the last four months?
— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) February 26, 2016
As Marv Albert notes, Rockets ended this game on a 44-16 run. Finished Game 6 vs. the Clippers 49-18.
— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) February 26, 2016
The Rockets are such an irritating team to behold. The talent, the physical prowess, the length — this is a team which can create very difficult matchups, but deficiencies in effort, chemistry and vigilance all make Houston so much less than what it should be. The story of the Rockets remains, on balance, a sad one, a tale filled with regrets and might-have-beens.
Yet, from the negativity and the gloom, this team has once again managed to renew itself long enough to remind the NBA community that it is indeed capable of greatness. Last season, that capacity for greatness was at least enough to win a second-round playoff series. This win might very well become the difference between the lottery (as the ninth-place team in the West) and the playoffs. It could change the arc of J.B. Bickerstaff’s career and the way he’s perceived as a coach.
Or… it will simply mean that Bickerstaff will lose this team next season, much as Kevin McHale — who presided over that Game 6 win (perhaps in spite of himself; you make the call) — was quickly tuned out by Harden and the rest of the roster last November.
In which direction will the Houston Rockets swerve next? Your guess is as good as mine after another remarkable resurrection on the West Coast.