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The Rockets Should Be America’s Team

In support of Houston’s group of cast-offs who jack 3s at a historic rate — and are our best hope at preventing Cavs-Warriors Part III

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

We’re less than a month away from the start of the NBA Finals, with all signs pointing to the Cavaliers and Warriors meeting yet again to determine a champion, and more importantly, give the internet unprecedented levels of memeable content. Like everything else in this country, the thought of this happening has become polarizing. On the one hand, no two teams have ever played each other in three consecutive Finals, meaning Cavs-Warriors Part III would represent a historic rubber match between teams that split the past two Finals, as well as a clash between one of the three best players of all time and what might be the most talented team on paper in the history of basketball. A Cavs-Warriors 2017 Finals would most definitely not suck.

But on the other hand … this same bullshit? Again? I’m typically a wet blanket when it comes to the playoffs of any sport, as I tend to cheer for the best teams to advance so that the championship round will be played at the absolute highest level. But I can’t get behind another Cavs-Warriors Finals, mostly because last year was the PERFECT conclusion to their saga. I know you don’t need a reminder of what happened, but indulge me anyway.

In Part I, LeBron James came home to Cleveland for the 2014–15 season, sent Cavs fans into a frenzy by immediately carrying a young team to the Finals, and ultimately fell short (thanks in no small part to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love suffering injuries) as then-rookie head coach Steve Kerr and the affable Warriors proved that relying on 3-pointers can be a viable formula to win a title. In Part II, the script was flipped, as America turned on the Warriors and LeBron somehow became an underdog, fueled by the Finals loss the year before and by Steph Curry winning his second straight MVP award despite LeBron obviously being the best player in the world. The 73-win Warriors built a 3–1 series lead; Cleveland rallied after Draymond Green was suspended for hitting LeBron in the nuts; the members of the Cavs’ Big Three each executed the most memorable plays of their careers (LeBron’s block, Irving’s dagger, and Love’s lockdown defense on Curry) in Game 7; and LeBron cemented his legacy in Cleveland as the closest thing any athlete will ever be to a god. Meanwhile, Ayesha Curry was roasted on Twitter, the Crying Jordan meme reached its apex, LeBron wore an Ultimate Warrior shirt and a Kermit-sipping-tea hat as he got off a plane holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and some guy ate horseshit at the championship parade.

It can’t possibly get better than that. In fact, I can’t tell if I’m joking when I say I would have been fine if the NBA had decided to permanently fold the league and just ride off into the sunset after last year’s Finals. Instead, the best two-year NBA story line in recent memory is in jeopardy of being tarnished by an unnecessary third installment? Screw that. I don’t need to see LeBron and Co. overcome another stacked Warriors roster to end Cleveland’s enduring title drought of, uh, one year. And I sure don’t need to see a team that won 73 games and then added a former MVP and top-five player in the offseason remind everyone that parity in the league has always been a pipe dream. Seriously, if the NBA were fixed — and I think we can all agree this is just a reckless hypothetical since the league has never done anything to give off the impression that it is — turning Cavs-Warriors into a trilogy would feel like a blatant and desperate money grab. (Thankfully, the NBA definitely isn’t fixed, so we don’t have to worry about the league setting up a Cavs-Warriors Finals to give its sagging ratings a boost.)

And that is why I’d like to rally support for the one team that can save us from this nightmare and let the guy eating a horse turd forever maintain his rightful place as the final chapter in the Cavs-Warriors rivalry. I’m talking, of course, about America’s Team: the Houston Rockets.

With apologies to the Clippers’ third-quarter stretch in last Sunday’s Game 7 elimination loss to the Jazz — when head coach Doc Rivers threw out his version of the Lineup of Death: his son, Fat Raymond Felton, Marreese Speights’s 3-point shot that isn’t half as good as he thinks it is, and the remnants of Paul Pierce and Jamal Crawford — the Rockets’ performance through the first three quarters of Monday’s 126–99 Game 1 win over the Spurs in the second round was the most impressive basketball played in these playoffs. As someone who predominantly follows college basketball instead of the NBA during the winter, I can’t overstate how much it hurts that I made it to May without anyone telling me that the Rockets are my dream team come to life. I mean, I watched bits and pieces of Houston’s games throughout the season and heard plenty of NBA people talk about how this group shot only 3s, dunks, and layups. But there always seemed to be this universal understanding that the Rockets were a gimmick, built to entertain more than they were built to win.

I know I’m working with a small sample size, so stats nerds, please try to stay calm as you read what I’m about to write: After watching Houston’s two playoff games against the Spurs, I’ve already seen enough to be convinced that the Rockets are no gimmick. In Game 1, the Houston offense was every bit as good as advertised, dropping 126 points on the NBA’s best defense while hitting an absurd 22 3s. What’s more, the Rockets defense totally stifled San Antonio, holding the Spurs starters to 13-of-42 shooting (30.9 percent) as Google searches for “LaMarcus Aldridge contract” reached an all-time high. Two nights later in a Game 2 that the Spurs had to win and that Houston basically played with house money, the Rockets couldn’t hit anything, James Harden basically took the night off, San Antonio couldn’t miss, and Houston still had the game in reach before Gregg Popovich’s tirade at the end of the third quarter reminded the refs which franchise in this series pays the bills for the NBA. It’s tempting to make too much of the Rockets’ 121–96 loss in Game 2 on Wednesday, just like it was to make too much of their overwhelming Game 1 win. But all that truly matters is this: The Rockets seem to be the better team, they now have home-court advantage, the Spurs have yet to play particularly well on the road in these playoffs, and Tony Parker is out for the foreseeable future with a knee injury. The Rockets bandwagon remains in excellent shape.

Mike D’Antoni (AP Images)
Mike D’Antoni (AP Images)

Beyond that, I’m all but certain this team is what people tried to pretend the Warriors were two years ago. Remember the underdog aura that followed Golden State in 2014–15, as though it wasn’t headlined by a two-time college All-American and lottery pick who is the son of a former NBA player (Curry), another lottery pick who is the son of a former NBA player (Klay Thompson), and a first-team All-American who won the NABC player of the year award over Anthony Davis in 2012 (Green)? Yeah, well the Rockets have actual underdogs, as every player on the roster either has been traded or played in the D-League at some point during their careers, while two of their top three scorers (Lou Williams and Eric Gordon) come off the bench. Meanwhile, Houston is coached by lifetime underdog Mike D’Antoni, who was born and raised in Mullens, West Virginia, and has had more legendary mustaches (one) in his coaching career than NBA Finals berths (zero).

Speaking of D’Antoni and the comparisons between the 2016–17 Rockets and the 2014–15 Warriors, remember how Golden State seemed to solidify the staying power of the 3-point era by shooting what felt like exclusively 3s throughout its championship season (even though the Rockets actually shot more that year)? Well, there’s this: While the 2014–15 Warriors launched from deep on 30.9 percent of their overall shot attempts, and last year’s Dubs pulled the trigger from behind the arc 35.9 percent of the time, this season’s Rockets have shot a staggering 46.3 percent (!!!) of their field goal attempts from 3 — a clip that shatters the NBA record (39.4 percent, held by the 2014–15 Rockets) and still somehow seems at least 50 percentage points too low. It’s like this is exactly what D’Antoni had in mind when he and the Seven Seconds or Less Suns invented the concept of scoring points in 2004.

So back to the original matter at hand: Who says the Rockets can’t defeat the Spurs and then upset the Warriors in a seven-game Western Conference finals, sparing us from Cavs-Warriors Part III? You know what, don’t answer that. I have a feeling that a million pieces of data exist that would suggest Houston would get stomped in that matchup, starting with the fact that the Warriors would probably have five of the six best players in the series. But it could happen, right? Imagine if someone from the future came to you and said that the Rockets will beat the Warriors because they’ll drain 18 3-pointers every game, Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza will frustrate Curry and Kevin Durant just enough to stop the Warriors from matching Houston’s blistering pace, and Beverley will instigate an incident with Green in which Draymond gets suspended after taking a swing at Beverley’s crotch. Doesn’t all of that sound at least plausible?

It’s certainly enough for me to jump all in on the Rockets bandwagon. It’s been a foregone conclusion since the offseason that the Cavs and Warriors would meet in the Finals, and I’m willing to cling to any shred of hope that could prevent it from happening. The Rockets are not only that shred of hope — they also embody everything that I hold sacred about the game of basketball. They shoot an ungodly amount of 3s; they throw lobs and dunk on defenders; they talk a ton of trash; and they’re led by a guy with an iconic beard. And yeah, I know that Harden travels on his stepbacks, that the tape on his shoulder is stupid and probably does nothing, and that the thing he does to initiate contact on a 3 so he can flop and then head to the free throw line is a national crisis worthy of congressional attention. Excluding the robots that play for the Spurs, though, every superstar of the past 25 years has been hateable to some degree. I’m choosing to accept Harden’s theatrics as the cost of doing NBA business in the social-media era.

Besides, the Raptors can’t be America’s Team for obvious reasons, the Wizards and Jazz aren’t good enough to be taken seriously, and the idea of neutral fans cheering for the Celtics or Spurs makes me physically ill. Like it or not, the Rockets are our only hope. So join me in rallying behind our underdog heroes as they attempt to chuck, dunk, and flop their way to the Finals. Join me in cheering for the team that represents those of us who can do only one thing well on a basketball court. Join me on the bandwagon of the only team that can preserve the legacy of Cavs-Warriors, avenge the death of D’Antoni’s terrific mustache, and take down a giant with a group of players who nobody else in the league wanted. Please join me, America, in cheering for your team: the 2017 Western Conference champion (who will go on to lose to the Cavs in the Finals in, like, five games) Houston Rockets.