James Harden finished with 30 points in game 5 against the Lakers but it wasn't enough.
The Rockets were blown away in the first 8 minutes of the game, trailing by as many as 22 points and never really threatened to stretch the series to a game 6.
Across 12 playoff games the former MVP averaged 29.6 points, but it was a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs as Houston battled the absence of Russell Westbrook for the majority of the first round against Oklahoma City, with Westbrook in particular struggling to ever find a rhythm.
"It's very, very frustrating," Harden said postgame in response to a question about making another early playoff exit.
"Especially the amount of work that individually I put in. I'm just gonna keep chipping away. I feel like we're a piece away."
What...or more specifically who that piece may be is difficult to project, with Harden, Westbrook, Robert Covington and Eric Gordon locking up well over $100 million in salary cap for the next two seasons.
Committing fully to small ball at the trade deadline, the pandemic halted any momentum and chemistry the Rockets seemed to be finding, with Westbrook in particular playing his best basketball prior to the hiatus.
Head coach, Mike D'Antoni was blunt when asked whether the small ball tactics can have success in the playoffs.
"Ask the Lakers. They beat us with it. Golden State has proven that," D'Antoni said.
But even those Warriors had Andrew Bogut and JaVale McGee among others, the Lakers still had Anthony Davis as their nominal center, while Houston often times rolled with the 6-foot-7 P.J Tucker at the five. Tucker spoke about the energy and effort required to have success with the lineups they were playing.
James Harden dropped 30 points for the @HoustonRockets in game 5 against the Lakers.#OneMission pic.twitter.com/iwcmrugTiO- NBA Australia (@NBA_AU) September 13, 2020
"You got to be tough, got to be grimy, be able to switch, take the hits, it's all about doing the little stuff," Tucker said.
"You got to put people around [James Harden and Russell Westbrook] that are selfless and are gonna grind."
As long as the Rockets have Harden on the roster, they are going to be an extremely damaging regular season team that will be in a position to launch come playoff time, it will be about finding that extra piece, that added ingredient that allows them to have success under the bright lights of the postseason.
The frustration Harden spoke of is understandable, Houston have made the playoffs eight straight years since he joined the franchise without an appearance in the NBA Finals.
While the 2020 season is officially over, Harden remains as committed as ever.
"I'm willing to do whatever it takes, especially to win," Harden said.
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