James Harden and the Houston Rockets are finally free. With this game five win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets not only advance to the second round of the NBA playoffs, but they also shake loose the ghostly chains that have tied them to this Thunder team. A years-long simmering blood feud has finally been exorcised, at least for the duration of the playoffs, and the Rockets are better for it. Their path lies onward, while the slog they just endured lies in the past. The series against the Oklahoma City Thunder was a positively grueling five game series. The win totals don’t do justice to the closeness of the scores, the grind necessary to pull wins from the mire the Thunder dragged them into. After an initial blowout, this series looked likely to be over in five games. After those five games, the Rockets should be happy just to have made it out alive.
With a gaping hole where Kevin Durant used to be, the Thunder wisely leaned on their strengths this season. Russell Westbrook is a force of nature, an engine running with the cylinders exposed, the feeling of cussing out your boss extended over 82 games. He was doomed, as was the entire Thunder team, but they took a lot of other teams with them along the way this season. They do not win by making plays and adjustments, by finding gaps and exploiting them.
The Thunder held a lead in most of this game for the same reason they ever do: they let Russ dive into the belly of the opponent and make the meal not worth the indigestion. Westbrook and the Thunder continued to hit just enough threes, grab just enough boards, and get fouled just enough to stay ahead of a Rockets team they were defending with unknowable intensity. They made the Rockets bleed for 48 minutes in the hopes that they might flinch, decide it’s not worth it, and come back around for game 6 in Oklahoma City.
The Houston Rockets, again, declined the invitation.
The Rockets looked discombobulated and out of sorts. Harden may have scored 34, but he shot 8-24 and he was somehow a -6 on the game. The shooters couldn’t shoot, and the offense scored a mere 16 points in the first quarter. And it wasn’t enough. The Rockets got just enough contributions from role players, just enough putback goals, and just enough foul calls to pull through. It wasn’t pretty, but the Rockets didn’t flinch. They played their game and they were better than the Thunder.
They were better than Russell Westbrook and his team.
After being the little brother to the Oklahoma City Thunder for so long, the Houston Rockets, James Harden’s team, are undeniably the better team. They were pulled into a zombie MVP discussion, dragged down by a Thunder team that rightly clung to playoff life and a national spotlight on the superhuman feats Russell Westbrook was pulling off every night. In winning this game, in proving themselves, they have left that discussion behind. It doesn’t matter who won the MVP any longer, at least not in Houston. They have other things to do, places on the horizon to reach. Westbrook and the Thunder have a lot of soul searching in their immediate future. The Rockets have the second round.
With this win, this freedom, comes the chance to be oppressed by the brutal power and unstoppability of the elites in the Western Conference. Nene, for instance, showed himself to be a true credit to his team, an excellent player and a key cog in their first round win. Now they have to find out if he can do the same in the second round, when competition will likely increase. Now, a new set of pressures loom. A new set of opportunities come with them.
In a different way, the Thunder and Russell Westbrook are also free. They are free from the losing battle that was this NBA season. They are free to not worry about wins and losses any more. If Russell Westbrook embodies the cathartic cussing-out of the boss, he is now, fittingly, freed in the same way one might be freed by getting fired. It is a dark, poisoned freedom, but it is the freedom they were always destined for, and they have no choice but to press forward yet again.
In a more literal sense, the Rockets also press forward. Their press has direction, meaning, and possibility. Their freedom from Westbrook and their ties to the Thunder comes with a terrifying and difficult future, but it also comes with possibility. The Rockets were able to shed the weight that dragged them down, and now look toward the next round. They actually have something to lose, and it is through their victory that they are free to defend it.