There was a time, way back when, when every April meant birds singing, flowers blooming and the Houston Rockets back in the Western Conference playoffs. That time is rapidly coming to a close in 2010.
After five playoff appearances in six seasons during the Yao Ming era, the Rockets have hit a wall. A window is closing, an era is ending and the Rockets are on the verge of finding themselves on the outside looking into the Western Conference playoff picture.
As the Rockets enter Friday night, they are one game away from being mathematically eliminated from the postseason. The Spurs, who beat the Rockets in San Antonio on Wednesday night, now have a magic number of one to settle the deal. Either a win on Friday night against Orlando or a Rockets loss in Boston will officially end Houston’s season.
It’s a disappointment, too, for a Rockets team that began the season with a stockpile of talent and great expectations for a big season.
A year ago, the Rockets put up a tough fight against the eventual champion Lakers in a contentious Western Conference semifinal, hanging around straight to the end of a seven-game series. They looked like a team that had made big strides forward, a team that was ready to take that final step toward being a title contender.
That, though, was before Tracy McGrady wanted out, Yao Ming was done for the season and a host of other injuries took their toll on the Rockets’ season.
It’s a sad story that’s unfolding in Houston. The Rockets have one of the smartest, most progressive front offices in the NBA, led by GM Daryl Morey, and they’ve put a lot of work into building a cohesive team that fits together and wins together. Every piece of the puzzle fit together perfectly, from Yao and McGrady to the role players — Shane Battier, Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes.
But when injuries and chemistry issues take their toll, it all falls apart.It’s now been eight years since the Rockets selected Yao with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft. Since then, the Rockets have worked to build a contending team around him, and they’ve never been able to get over the hump. They’ve made shrewd moves year after year — you can’t really point to any major mistakes — but they’ve also never made the huge splash, spent the huge bucks to bring home a championship. They never reached the top of the mountain.
It’s easy for a Bostonian to have pity for this Rockets team. We remember the years and years the Celtics spent trying to build a championship team around Paul Pierce, and for a long time, we assumed they were destined to fail. It was a miracle when Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and an outstanding supporting class all fell into place in one summer.
Not everyone is so lucky. And watching the Rockets, with all that promise and all that potential, to never get there is tough.
After on Friday night, it might be time for the Rockets to begin the rebuilding process. T-Mac is gone, Yao hasn’t won anything yet and the rest of the club is starting to age.
For the Celtics, Friday is bittersweet. They know what it’s like to be an also-ran, and they can’t be proud to be the ones hammering the final nail into Houston’s coffin. But the C’s play to win, and Friday is no exception.