The Houston Rockets were eliminated from the 2020 NBA playoffs on Saturday, as the Los Angeles Lakers completed a gentleman's sweep with a 119-96 victory in Game 5. On its face, it's not a surprising result. The Rockets were a No. 4 seed. They needed seven games to squeak past the Thunder in the first round. The Lakers are a No. 1 seed. They have, irrefutably, two of the top three players still alive in the playoffs. They're a bigger and better team than Houston.
But somewhere along the line we attached inflated expectations to the Rockets, in part because they have James Harden, in part because it's been burned into our heads that their mathematic approach to basketball somehow makes them less beholden to the actual talent on their roster, and also because we all still remember them coming this close to knocking off the Kevin Durant-Steph Curry Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference finals.
But the Rockets aren't that team anymore.
That team had Chris Paul. This one has Russell Westbrook. That's where we'll start with what has gone wrong for this Rockets team, and where it can possibly go from here.
Russ was a bust.
There's a lot more going on with this closing Houston window -- if it hasn't already slammed shut -- than the shortcomings of one player, and this isn't to put everything on Westbrook. But he's just not as good as Paul. Not in a vacuum, and certainly inside this Rockets system that desperately needs a second elite playmaker/high-level shooter to offset the attention Harden draws. Paul, in effect, was the C.J. McCollum to Harden's Damian Lillard.