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Can the Rockets escape the first round this season?
I don't need to tell you what happens in that picture. As painful as it was to post it and relive those memories, that moment was important for the franchise.
In Harden and Howard's first season together, the team failed to get past the first round of the playoffs. Even with home-court advantage, the Rockets could not overcome the pesky Blazers. Now, teams throughout the West are steadily improving, while the Rockets have perhaps taken a step backward.
They lost three of their top guys, including a crucial starter and several role players. The replacements, though young and full of potential, are still unproven and a cause for concern. However, with Harden, Howard and McHale together with a full season already under their belt, the bench issues are trivial.
Many experts see the Rockets falling down the ladder this season out West. They still aren't as good as the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs or Los Angeles Clippers, and other teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers are all getting better.
There are no free passes in the Western Conference. The Spurs' only seven-game series last season was in the first round against the Mavs. Anybody can beat anybody with a conference this deep. That's why the Rockets have a chance.
The Rockets were 3.8 seconds away from winning that Portland series and just 0.9 seconds away from forcing a Game 7. Yet two buzzer-beaters for the Blazers (one to force overtime in Game 1 and the other in Game 6) turned the tables, and Rip City moved on to the next round.
A lot of things didn't go the Rockets' way that series. The NBA admitted a missed call that cost the Rockets the opening game and home-court advantage. James Harden chose a bad time to go cold, while LaMarcus Aldridge had the two best games of his career back-to-back on the road. Jeremy Lin couldn't hold onto the ball or make a layup in closing time. McHale got schooled in the chess match by opposing coach Terry Stotts. And somehow, above all else, Damian Lillard found himself wide open.
Now that the most painfully hyperlinked paragraph is over, here's my point: All of that went wrong for the Rockets, and yet they still almost escaped the hectic first round and gained entry into the Western Conference semifinals.
We all wanted to see the Rockets face the Spurs in the playoffs after the series sweep in the regular season. Who knows what would have happened? We never got to find out.
This time around, the Rockets have another chance to make a deep playoff run. Their starting five is as good as any in the West, and the bench is loaded with potential. The Rockets have enough fuel to go deep into the postseason; it's just a matter of scheming and execution. I predict the Rockets will win at least one playoff series this upcoming year.