The Houston Rockets missed 27 straight three-point attempts in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals last night and we need to appreciate that. All of it, for so many reasons, because there is failure at the worst possible time, and then there is missing 27 in a row from the three-point line.
Bad luck is an everyday thing in sports. Then there is what happened to the Rockets, who got the basketball equivalent of waking up, looking at the sky, and seeing God firing two huge divine middle fingers in your face at 5:48 a.m on a Monday.
That doesn’t really overstate the case here. There is no way to really understate just how screwed Houston was against Golden State. This is an extremity. It’s not that Houston just ended up trapped on an ice floe — they ended up trapped on an ice floe, and then their food was eaten by ice rats, and then their emergency food stash was destroyed in a fire. The fire would have at least kept Houston warm if a blizzard hadn’t moved in and covered everything in five feet of snow. The snow would have protected the Rockets from the polar bears if the wind hadn’t come in and blown it all away. The bears finished the job. Being eaten by them is the nicest part of the story.
Twenty-seven straight misses. A divinely ordained disaster isn’t the endpoint, it is the starting point, Houston. Smarter people than me can talk about the basketball merits of committing that hard to the three-pointer. It happened, and nothing can change that, but it seems reasonable to expect that an NBA team, over any given stretch of time, could be expected to hit a statistically probable 30 percent of those shots. That’s reasonable and sane and I’d be OK with that as a Rockets fan, especially if we’re getting open looks.
And they were getting open looks! Houston committed to the probability that they would hit some three-pointers, and in response Probability threw its cellphone into a lake, changed its name, deleted all social media accounts, and left the country with no forwarding address. It wired everything out of the bank accounts to a shell corporation in the Cayman Islands. Probability ghosted Houston and is now running jet-ski tours for the wealthy in Portugal under the name “Davin LeBlanc.” It just vanished. It did so at the worst imaginable moment against the toughest possible opponent in the biggest possible spot.
And you have to respect watching Houston working in a luck-free environment. There is a tendency among fans to look back at a game and think the most dangerous word in sports: If. If Houston hits just three or four of those 27 attempts, this is a different game. That way lies madness, but it’s something sports fans will ruin their mental health and half a Tuesday thinking about while doing something completely unrelated. If a Rockets fan in your life crushes a ceramic coffee cup in their hands this morning during an entirely unrelated conversation, that is exactly what is happening. If is a poisonous, treasonous word.
There should be some comfort here in that there is no real “If.” Houston drew the worst hand possible, and kept going admirably. Call it an extremely inspiring case of amnesia. After all, after missing 20 in a row, they insisted on shooting seven more before finally hitting a three. That is a commitment to the plan right there, one that in any normally distributed set of risks and returns should have worked. I’m not being glib: That’s inspiring as hell, and fearless, even if it turned into an arctic expedition horror story before the eyes of a gobsmacked home crowd.
There should also be some consolation not in Houston being screwed, but in the insane degree of how utterly screwed the Rockets were. Missing 10 threes in a row is poor execution. Missing 15 or 20? That borders on fate. But 27 in a row? This is no longer a mortal affair. This is supernatural. This requires priests and sorcerers and even then there are no guarantees. This goes all the way back around from laughing matter to serious matter to laughing matter — a broken, mad laughter in a crawlspace, sure, but still all the way back to laughing. In more arctic doom terms: Houston tried for an Amundsen, but caught a Scott. Houston was freezing to death in the tent from the start.
Finally, respect the Rockets for playing out one of those stories that asks the hardest question in the world: What if, in the course of any contest, the worst thing in the world happens? What if, after losing so many hands of blackjack in a row that you’ve lost count, you say “Well this can’t happen again?” And then it does, for another 27 hands in a row, with the only way out being doubling and tripling and quadrupling down again? What if you badly need just six percent — like, say, just hitting four out of 27 missed three-pointers — of something to go right in order to survive. What if that comes up zero, even when it shouldn’t?
Sometimes life does that. It comes up hard zeroes — not just against optimism, but against even the lowest edge of basic expectations. The Rockets got those zeroes in brutal fashion, and they still kept working. Even if they get paid to do that, there is something to be said for the effort and example, and for not crawling into the third row and ordering a beer and crying. Not that I would have objected: I would have respected that, too because GOOD GOD, Y’ALL, NO ONE MISSES 27 THREE-POINTERS IN A ROW IN A PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL GAME. NO ONE.*