HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden and the Houston Rockets were eliminated by the Golden State Warriors yet again.
Now the Rockets are left to ponder how they’ll get over the hump and past the Warriors to contend for a title.
The two-time defending champion Warriors beat Houston 118-113 in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals on Friday night despite the absence of Kevin Durant and behind 33 second-half points from Stephen Curry to send the Rockets home for the fourth postseason in the last five years.
With each early playoff exit, the Rockets vow to find a way to defeat the Warriors and get their first championship since winning back-to-back titles in 1994-95. But year after year they are unable to do that and are faced with questions about whether this team ever will.
Despite the latest disappointment, team owner and casino and restaurant magnate Tilman Fertitta remains confident Harden will be able to lead them to a title soon.
“I can promise you, we’re going to win some championships with James Harden,” Fertitta said. “Because we are not going to sit here, we will go to battle every year, we’re going to have a strong offseason, and we’re going to do whatever we can do to be a better team. We are not going to sit on our hands, I can promise you that.”
Harden followed up his MVP season in 2018 with another MVP-level season, leading the NBA with a career-high 36.1 points a game. He scored 30 points or more in 32 straight games from December to February to keep the Rockets afloat when the roster was decimated by injuries. His streak was the second-longest in NBA history behind a 65-game streak by Wilt Chamberlain.
Harden was asked what the Rockets can do to get past Golden State.
“Keep fighting,” he said. “Obviously, they’re a very, very good team. They’re a great team. They’ve been in the Finals the last four or five years. We’re not losing to some scrubs. We’ve got to find a way to keep getting better, keep growing and keep putting ourselves in a position to keep playing them.”
Harden scored at least 30 points in seven of Houston’s 11 playoff games and led the team in each postseason game. Fellow star Chris Paul, who signed a four-year, $160 million last summer, wasn’t nearly as consistent, scoring just 11 points in a Game 5 loss before bouncing back with a playoff-high 27 points on Friday night.
“Regardless of who we’re playing, there are no moral victories,” Paul said. “We lost. We’ve got to get back to the drawing board. We’re going home and that’s just the way it is.”
Clint Capela, Houston’s 24-year-old center, was among the most vocal about the team’s desire to get another shot at Golden State this season after the Warriors beat Houston in the conference finals last year. He had some good moments in this series, but was never as dominant as he’d looked at times in the regular season. Capela scored just six points in both Game 4 and 5 and managed 10 in the elimination game, but got in early foul trouble and didn’t do much to impact the game.
“Clint is a classy guy and he’ll learn from this,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s young and he’s going to get stronger.”
Houston’s defensive leader P.J. Tucker doesn’t believe there’s a huge difference between the Rockets and the Warriors and said that if they would have done the little things better they would have won this series where each game was decided by six points or fewer.
“We’ve just got to be smarter and got to be more disciplined,” he said. “You play them you’ve got to be disciplined. Whether they’re missing guys, they can plug guys in who do their jobs. They’ve got a bunch of disciplined guys who do their job and they know how to play. They’re smart.”
After Friday’s loss Harden lamented the team’s tough start where the Rockets won just one of their first six games and were 9-11 after 20. They got going after that but struggled to dig out of the early hole and were the fourth seed in the Western Conference a year after capturing the top seed by winning a franchise-record 65 games.
“You want to give yourself the best chance and with the four-seed we had home court advantage in the first series but the second we had to play on the road which is difficult,” Harden said. “We’ve got to get off to a better start and we’ve got to give ourselves the best chance by getting that No. 1 or No. 2 seed. It’s a huge part of it.”
Harden claimed to know “exactly” what the Rockets need to do in order to beat Golden State next season. But wouldn’t reveal what that solution was when pressed for answers.
Despite this latest setback D’Antoni is optimistic that Houston can improve next season and finally chase another title.
“Our core is still young, and (general manager) Daryl (Morey) will do a great job,” he said. “We’ve got to gather ourselves this summer and regroup and get after it next year. All of us have got to do a little bit better job.”