OAKLAND, Calif. — When the Golden State Warriors eliminated the Houston Rockets in last year's Western Conference Finals, there was every reason to be optimistic about the future of James Harden and his team.
Houston had nearly reached the NBA Finals, falling to the eventual champs, after getting only a half-season from Dwight Howard and suffering other significant injuries up and down the roster. Harden had just finished second in the MVP voting, and Ty Lawson would come aboard for next to nothing during the offseason, further bolstering the roster and another step forward.
The Rockets' future was rosy.
After a 114-81 thrashing at the hands of the Warriors on Wednesday, it's safe to say there's no such positive sentiment after this year's elimination.
The Warriors' best player wore a suit on the sidelines, and the Rockets looked less like a team hoping to capitalize and more like one ready to go home.
Houston let Klay Thompson loose early and often, couldn't slow down Shaun Livingston, turned the ball over 17 times and allowed far too many transition opportunities for a Warriors offense that, in theory, needed those breakaways to score without Stephen Curry in the lineup.
One first-quarter pass from Harden, who scored 18 of Houston's 20 points in the opening period and was responsible for all of its field goals, bounced off Michael Beasley's hands and hit Jason Terry in the chest before caroming out of bounds. This was not a good look for a player who guaranteed victory before the game to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle (h/t USA Today).
In fact, the entire opening quarter was a bad look for the Rockets. It was not, however, an unfamiliar one.
Houston played like this all year.
"To me, this isn't about one game," head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "To me, this is about the opportunity that we've had the entire year. We forced it to come down to this game. We forced it to come down to us being the eighth seed."
In addition to Harden providing all of the offense while others stood and watched, the Rockets turned the ball over four times and registered only three assists during a first quarter that decided the game. Down 37-20 after a truly disheartening 12 minutes, Houston must have thought it was trapped in a time loop.
The first quarter looked alarmingly like the pivotal third quarter of Game 4, when Golden State rallied without Curry to blitz the Rockets. That was a 41-20 margin, so...progress?
Everything that went wrong for Houston in Wednesday's game and the series as a whole was symptomatic of a team that simply never coalesced, never became more than Harden and some spectators. At least not for more than a few games at a time.
Harden, as you'd expect, led all scorers with 35 points.
"Don't get me wrong—he was great," Draymond Green said. "But when you dominate the ball like that, it can take everyone else out of rhythm."
Perhaps we all got a little caught up overreacting to the Rockets' nonreaction after Harden's winning jumper in Game 3, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better encapsulation of the joyless, disjointed season that started with Kevin McHale losing his job and ended with the Rockets effectively failing to show up and care about theirs:
With this mess of a season officially behind the team, Houston approaches a crossroads.
Bickerstaff's job is hardly secure, especially after the team failed to respond much differently to him than it did McHale. His lineup choices were curious Wednesday (Clint Capela needed to see the floor), and it was clear the Rockets either didn't understand or didn't care about their coach's specific instructions.
Consider: Bickerstaff spoke explicitly before the game about how Thompson was a focal point with Curry off the court.
"They run a ton of stuff through Klay," Bickerstaff said. "When Steph is on the floor, they're running those actions on both sides of the floor, so there really is no weak side for your defense. With Steph being off the court, the focal point for them offensively so far in this series has been Klay. ... That gives us a direct weak side for our defense and guys can be in better position to help."
Golden State was creative in getting Thompson open, but it wasn't that creative.
Bickerstaff knew (and presumably communicated) the danger of Thompson, but the Warriors' best available shooter scored an easy 27 points on 10-of-14 shooting. Houston's defenders simply didn't adhere to any clear scheme or work to deny Thompson touches. He got four clean looks in the first quarter and saw plenty more as the game got out of hand.
Houston knew Thompson was vital to Golden State's scoring, and it let him get hot enough early for things such as this to happen later on:
This ignorance of a clear threat was historically significant, per Warriors PR:
In addition to coaching uncertainty, there's also some on the roster.
Dwight Howard can opt out of his contract to become a free agent this summer. With tons of cash available thanks to the rising cap, there figure to be suitors. It might not even take money to get Howard out of Houston considering how consistently unhappy he's seemed there—see his reaction to Harden's game-winner again for proof.
Josh Smith and Jason Terry will also be free agents, and the Rockets will have tricky restricted free-agent decisions to make on Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones.
There will be questions about Harden too.
He wasn't in shape to start the season, never committed to defending and, based on the way the Rockets performed, we can conclude he wasn't an inspiring leader.
Still a brilliant scorer, Harden's game basically requires that he occupy an alpha role. It's fair to wonder whether his style of play will consistently alienate other stars and if the ceiling of any team he's on is somewhere below championship level.
What does Houston need to avoid a similar fate next year?
"That's tough to say right now," Bickerstaff said. "I think, obviously, free agency and things like that there is going to be change. But I think what the team needs to do is it needs to find a way to enjoy the common goals, and that's the most important thing."
In the end, there's something merciful about all of this, even if the way the Warriors dispatched the Rockets was so cruel. At least Houston can address its messes in private rather than having internal flaws exposed in public every night it takes the floor.
The Rockets' season was about a team whose play reflected deeper-seated failings. Effort, cohesion and happiness—all were missing.
Now eliminated, Houston has a pivotal offseason to find them.
Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.
Quotes obtained firsthand.