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Monday, February 6, 2023

Men's Basketball

Youthful Rockets have a chance to grow from playoffs

James Harden is fifth in scoring in the NBA with 25 points per game.  |  Wikimedia Commons

James Harden is fifth in scoring in the NBA with 25 points per game. | Wikimedia Commons

The Houston Rockets fell Sunday to the Oklahoma City Thunder 120-91, collapsing on the road and showing their age and inexperience against the playoff-tested Thunder.

The Rockets are the youngest team in the NBA, with a combined roster playoff experience of 133 games, much of that belonging to James Harden’s experience with his former team. Sunday night, the youth and inexperience were showcased in the worst possible fashion.

The Rockets managed to keep pace with the athletic, battle-tested Thunder through most of the first half, despite an abysmal shooting performance.

As the second quarter wound down, though, the Rockets started to collapse and didn’t stop until the final buzzer sounded, losing by nearly 30 before a sea of blue T-shirts in Chesapeake Energy Bay Arena.

This is the Rockets’ first playoff appearance since 2009, when Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were on the roster.

General Manager Daryl Morey was dealt a poor hand, with McGrady falling well short of his projected potential and Ming’s foot injuries leaving an empty roster hole with no compensatory draft picks or trade value.

By procuring Harden, Omer Asik, and Jeremy Lin, Morey took the first steps toward championship contention, and a playoff berth is a nice nod to the progress he has made.

It’s becoming almost cliché for commentators to state the Rockets are “one good piece” away from becoming a real contender in the West. It’s harder to say that after witnessing Sunday’s walloping in Oklahoma City, but anyone doubting Morey and the Rockets has to remember how young this team is.

Harden, the crown jewel of Morey’s three-point and inside-shot centered offensive approach, is 23. Chandler Parsons, whom Morey managed to steal in the second round of the draft, is 24. Lin, who took the world by storm with last year’s Linsanity, is also 24. Asik is a relatively grizzled 26. This nucleus of talent, still in search of its missing superstar — or nearly-superstar — piece, will grow together, and with the palatable contracts Morey has wrangled, they will develop with little alteration in the lineup.

The future is bright. The present is less so.

Still, as awful as the loss was, Oklahoma City only did what it was supposed to do — win at home. The Rockets, to make this a series, still only need to steal a road game. And given that the team is young, it is resilient enough to shake off the brutalization Sunday and right the ship.

The Rockets were getting good looks Sunday, but the looks weren’t enough. Chalk it up to nerves or inexperience or anything else — all it will take to turn the series around is a more solid shooting effort and more defensive focus. The Rockets are a long shot to win the series — an eight-seed always is — but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

But win or lose, the experience the team’s nucleus is gaining playing serious, high-stakes playoff basketball will only aid in its growth and development, and push the team further along on their path to real contention in the Western Conference.

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