More than the fate of this season will be on the line for the Rockets tonight as they face the Thunder in Game 7 of their first-round series, writes Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer. Houston is in danger of wasting another year of James Harden‘s prime, and both he and Russell Westbrook will have the chance to opt out of their current contracts and become free agents in the summer of 2022.
Although the Rockets have gone through two recent shakeups by trading for Westbrook last July and fully embracing small-ball by dealing starting center Clint Capela in February, O’Connor believes more changes could be on the way, especially if the team gets bounced in the first round. Mike D’Antoni seems unlikely to return as head coach, and general manager Daryl Morey might have to consider changes to his philosophy of surrounding Harden and Westbrook with standstill shooters.
There are also concerns that Westbrook, an inconsistent 3-point shooter, doesn’t fit as well with Harden as Chris Paul once did. Playing just his second game since returning from a quad injury, Westbrook was particularly bad in the Game 6 loss, turning the ball over seven times.
“We’ve gotta take care of it. Starting with myself,” said Westbrook, who is expected to remain on a minutes limit tonight. “I’m just trying to figure out rhythm and timing, but I’ll figure it out next game.”
There’s more Rockets news to pass along:
- The team will make a greater effort to get the ball to Harden in the closing minutes if tonight’s game is close, D’Antoni tells Jonathan Feigen of The Houston Chronicle. Although stats show Harden’s usage hasn’t changed much in the final minutes of the three close games in the series, he didn’t touch the ball in the final seconds Monday with the Rockets trailing by two points. “Obviously, we’re trying to get him involved,” D’Antoni said. “We just kept turning it over before he had a chance to get involved. There was a number of turnovers that probably shouldn’t happen. We’ll talk about it. He knows. He’ll be ready to go.”
- While Westbrook was disappointing in Game 6, the Rockets made the right move by acquiring him in exchange for Paul and a parcel of draft picks, argues Mark Medina of USA Today. Medina points out that Paul’s injury history made him risky for Houston, even though he has stayed healthy this season. There was also noticeable tension between Paul and Harden that built up over two seasons, while Westbrook and Harden are long-time friends.
- Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press talks to several little-used players, including Rockets veteran center Tyson Chandler, about the experience of being stuck in a closed environment without seeing much playing time.