The Rockets Validate Their Regular Season

Prior to the start of the NBA playoffs, Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antonio said that it was unfair to say his team’s impressive 65-win regular season had to be validated in the postseason, or to judge the entire year based on what the Rockets did in the playoffs. I thought that was a little silly at the time—the NBA is a postseason-based league, with its games and series both being very long. Houston had to meet a higher threshold than would be the case in any other sport if they wanted to look back fondly on the 65-win season. As they enter tonight’s Game 5 against the Golden State Warriors (9 PM ET, TNT), I’m prepared to say Houston has met the test.

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I didn’t make any bones about the fact that I didn’t think the Rockets would win a game in this series and said so before that became a media talking point after they lost Game 1 at home. Even when Houston took Game 2 decisively, I said they had to at least win one on the road before I’d take them seriously in this matchup. They grabbed Game 4, 95-92 and made all the key plays down the stretch. Point taken. The Houston season is validated.

In the aftermath of D’Antoni’s pre-playoffs remarks, ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser took a similar stance to mine, but said the Rockets had to at least make the NBA Finals, or else they would just be the basketball version of the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 regular season games but lost in the American League Championship Series. I think that’s a good comparison, but differ on the conclusion.

The Mariners lost that 2001 ALCS to the New York Yankees, who were at the height of their dynasty in the Joe Torre Era. Those Yankees were the baseball equivalent of this year’s Golden State Warriors. They were easily the gold standard in their sport and a regular season that saw them finish with a 2-seed could be dismissed—after all, these were teams accustomed to playing deep into the postseason and it wasn’t likely they would stay motivated through the long drudgery of the regular schedule. But each could turn it on when they needed to.

I fully expected Golden State to do just that—and frankly, I still do. But we’ve reached the point in the playoffs where Houston has clearly solidified themselves, not just as a good regular season team, but a good playoff team. The Rockets have won two rounds of the playoffs and now become the only team over the last couple years to even win two games against the Warriors. Whatever happens between now and Memorial Day (the date of a potential Game 7), no one can say that Houston folded up when the lights were shining the brightest.