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Everything Is Going Wrong for the Rockets

An 0-2 start against Golden State already looks grim, and a closer examination makes it seem downright depressing

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Houston is returning home after losing two games by a combined 10 points to Golden State. Without any context, you can make a glass half full out of that, right? The Rockets kept it close with the best team of the century. Twice! With context, like James Harden’s eyes bleeding in Game 2, Chris Paul’s looking his age, Capela’s looking Paul’s age, the Rockets bench’s looking Paul’s age, and Kevin Durant’s saying, “I’m Kevin Durant” and then playing like Kevin Durant, it’s downright depressing for Houston. The point differential in both losses averaged to five points, but it seemed like 15. The series is 2-0, but it seems like 3-0. Here’s what’s not working for the Rockets right now:

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors - Game Two Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

James Harden’s Eyeballs

Fighting for a rebound in the first quarter, Draymond Green’s fingers hit Harden’s eyeballs like 10 tiny Myles Garretts. Harden left for the locker room with both eyes bleeding (Steve Nash would’ve stayed), got eye drops (which has to be the largest ratio of seemingly extreme injury to puny treatment ever), and emerged again in the second quarter a mangled man. Something about the combination of Harden’s beard, his resting sad face, and his literally bloodshot eyes made him look like the dying character in an action movie who has one … last … ounce … of … wisdom … he … has … to … say … to … the … protagonist … but … really … slowly … because … he’s … dying, except no bad guy put him on his deathbed—a two-week bender in Vegas did.

It was so bad that Green APOLOGIZED:

“I made a mistake and hit him in his eye,” Green said. (This is the third eye he’s poked this season.) Harden could barely see during the game, though he shot better after injuring his eyes (before: 0-for-3 from the field, zero points, and two turnovers. After: 9-for-16, 29 points, four turnovers).

The Clint Capela Problem

The hope was that the 24-year-old center the Rockets re-signed last July to a five-year, $90-million deal would be a difference maker in the playoffs. Capela was on the floor the least out of all Houston starters in Game 2, with just 32 minutes—and that was about 10 minutes too long. When the Warriors go small, as they have from the jump this series, they snuff out what Capela does well.

Capela missed opportunities to score and created them for Golden State in Game 2. He struggled to connect on the lobs from Harden that had worked with ease all season against lesser teams when Draymond Green or Kevin Durant met him in the paint. Green is an in-the-moment defender as much as he is one thinking of the bigger picture at all times; he’ll step to the pick-and-roll then beat his man on the way back to the basket. Of all Durant’s skills, defense is probably the least exciting, which is why it can be easy to forget that he can effectively cover a big man like Capela.

On offense, the Warriors capitalized on Capela. They worked to switch him onto Steph Curry so Curry could barrel past him to the rim. Golden State took 91 shots to Houston’s 77 in Game 2, due in part to Capela and other Houston big men being abandoned in deep territory after switches, leaving the Rockets out of position to grab defensive rebounds—an area the team was deficient in all season, anyway—and making it easier on Golden State to get second chances, which it did on over a third of its misses.

Chris Paul and the Role Players

In Game 2, Houston went only seven deep. No reserves saw more than five minutes besides Austin “Flu Game” Rivers and Gerald Green, who combined for all 20 bench points. Now, because of that pesky salary cap, the Warriors bench is somehow even more shallow. They’re top-heavy, especially with Kerr starting Andre Iguodala this series.

Role players are one of the areas where Houston could create an edge, but after two games, even that seems unlikely. Green and Iguodala are so in sync on offense that you start to remember why the latter won Finals MVP in 2015; Green scored 15 points and Iguodala 16, which was the first time each Warriors starter had finished with 15 or more in a playoff game since 2015.

Chris Paul, meanwhile, is acting the role-player part. His line in Game 2 (18 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals, four turnovers, no ejection) was slightly better than Game 1’s (17 points, three rebounds, four assists, three steals, five turnovers, ejection), but Paul’s presence still wasn’t enough for a max player. Harden was gone for almost a full quarter nursing his eye injury, leaving with 6:27 left in the first and not reentering the game until five minutes into the second. And even when he came back, I mean, use context clues:

This guy isn’t leading you to victory this time! Paul is a 33-year-old veteran superstar teetering out of his prime, one known for flash and little-man power and competitive rage that’s channeled into scoring and setting up teammates. So far in this series, he’s looked less like the Point God playing and more like a Point Human.

Kevin Durant’s Apex

It’s tough to criticize the Rockets for not being able to stop Durant, because I can’t imagine anyone or any thing or any unit stopping him right now. KD has been the best player in the playoffs, and the growing consensus is that he’s the best in the NBA overall. After the Warriors eliminated the Clippers in the first round, Patrick Beverely was asked what else the team could’ve done to stop Durant. He shot the question back at the reporter because there was no answer. Lou Williams, who was sitting next to Beverely, said, “Sometimes you come across special people. And it doesn’t matter what you send them.” Any Rocket Durant can’t get through, he can shoot over, and if he can’t shoot over them (he can), he can go around.

The magic of regular-season Harden is a little lost in the two defeats. He was a streaky shooter in the first round, took 28 shots and 14 free throws to score 35 points in Game 1 against the Warriors, then missed a large portion of Game 2. All of this next to Durant doesn’t just make Harden look second-best, it makes the Rockets’ chances look about the same as the year before.