Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey will walk into Oracle Arena on Saturday night looking forward to the day he won't ever have to again.
"I hate going to that building," Morey said. "I've been there a lot, and they've got the better of us. I'm excited for the new building."
"They" are the Golden State Warriors, and while the Rockets are 2-0 against them this season heading into their Saturday night duel on national television, losing to the Warriors in last year's Western Conference Finals—despite having the league's best overall record and a 3-2 lead in the series—left a brand on the Rockets' collective hearts that has never really stopped burning.
"For us, we feel like [the Warriors] are a team that cost us our dreams," wingman Gerald Green said. "So we always go in there with a little different focus."
Both teams look different even since they last met at Oracle in January. Chris Paul and Eric Gordon missed that game, as did DeMarcus Cousins. "This will be our first time with Cousins out there, so we have to see what we're made of," Gordon said.
Who they're made of is certainly different. But Morey has been tinkering all season since saying goodbye last summer to veteran wings Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and Joe Johnson. In, for a time, were Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis before being replaced by power forward Kenneth Faried and guard Austin Rivers.
"I've stood pat before, and it never went well," Morey said. "You want to have your core the same, but I think you need new energy."
The season-long makeover, along with what one team source said was a summer lethargy fueled by the feeling of success some players took from last season in spite of the way it ended, had the Rockets at one point outside of the playoff picture. That's a far cry from last season, when they bolted out to a 25-4 start and had the largest point differential (plus-8.5) in the league.
Even with all of the changes, Gordon believes they are capable of knocking off the champs if given the opportunity.
"It's tough to erase [the memory of last year] because you knew you had that chance," Gordon said. "It lingers. I know every year is different, but I believe we still have the best chance of any team of possibly beating them. I still stick by that. We have the talent. We match up with them well."
Whatever happens in Saturday's meeting or in the regular-season finale March 13 in Houston, it won't melt the memory of their epic Game 6 and 7 collapses last May.
"Everything is different," said forward PJ Tucker. "We get no credit for what we did or didn't do last season. I take nothing from that series other than what it felt like to lose. It makes you want it a little more. That's it."
For anyone who has forgotten, the Rockets entered Game 6 with a 3-2 series edge and looked ready to dethrone the Warriors on their home floor despite losing Paul to a hamstring injury in the final minute of their Game 5 victory in Houston. Oracle's intimidating atmosphere went mute after the Rockets got off to a blistering start that produced a 39-22 first-quarter lead. Assistant coach John Lucas recalled looking down at the Warriors' bench and sensing they had the defending champions rattled. "They were panicking," Lucas said. "[Warriors coach] Steve [Kerr] kept telling them to slow down."
Eventually, they did, trimming the lead by seven by halftime and then scorching the Rockets 64-25 in the second half for a 115-86 win.
Teams insist there is no carryover from game to game in the playoffs, but this was one instance in which that would be a hard sell. The Rockets again led throughout the first half in Game 7 at home and took a 54-43 lead into the third quarter. Again, the Warriors unleashed another second-half barrage, outscoring Houston by 20 over the final 24 minutes for a 101-92 series-clinching victory. The most notable statistic from the game, though, will be the number of consecutive three-pointers the Rockets missed down the stretch: 27.
Gordon, Morey and coach Mike D'Antoni, though, insist that both their personnel and strategy were good enough to get the job done.
"The game plan was right on," D'Antoni said earlier this week. "We either ran out of gas or didn't make timely stops or timely shots. I wouldn't do anything different."
Morey seemed to agree. "A 17-point lead is nothing in their building, [but] I don't think there was something we needed, other than a Six Million Dollar Man hamstring for Chris.
"All [Patriots coach Bill] Belichick does is grunt and say, 'You've got to make plays,' but he's right. We had to have a lot of things go right to get there, and we had to have a lot of things not go right not to go further."
If the Rockets needed a refresher on the ingredients that produced last May's debacle, they got it Thursday night against the Lakers—another double-digit lead blown, a slew of open threes missed down the stretch and the presence of referee Scott Foster, who was part of the Game 7 crew last year that had other NBA players—including Cousins, then with the New Orleans Pelicans, and now-Raptors guard Jeremy Lin—commenting on social media. "The zebras are on the run!" Cousins wrote on Twitter. Lin chimed in: "As objectively as I can be, the Warriors are prob still the better team but the refs are definitely helping them…"
After Harden and Paul both fouled out of the 111-106 loss Thursday, they took verbal aim at Foster, who hit Paul with a technical foul in the final minute that essentially sealed the outcome.
"For sure, it's personal," Harden said of how Foster officiates the Rockets. "I don't think he should be able to officiate our games anymore." Paul joined in, telling reporters he had met with the league about Foster and was at a loss about "what else to do."
Well, Foster won't be in Oracle Arena on Saturday, but it wouldn't matter if he were. The satisfaction the Rockets are seeking won't be found unless they meet the Warriors once more with their respective seasons on the line. If that doesn't happen, they won't ever have to enter Oracle again—the Warriors open next season in the new Chase Center in San Francisco—and Morey will be left with the memory of what could've been. Credited with inspiring the NBA's analytical movement as much as any GM, Morey said he found a statistic that said the Rockets were favored by more than 50 percent to win the championship when they held a five-point lead right before Paul got injured. (The Warriors went on to sweep the Cavaliers.)
"It's the only time I've been that close," he said. "It's probably the same for Chris. It's the worst."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.
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