Since the end of the season, I’ve had some time to unwind and decompress. I have to admit, it’s hard to not be playing right now. Instead, I’m just sitting at home and seeing the playoffs everywhere on TV and social media. It’s frustrating. We felt like we could have been in the playoffs, and probably should have been.
That was the goal for us coming into the season.
But we dealt with a lot. We had four of our main guys go down this year, and still, guys stepped up. Even through all the adversity that we had, we gave ourselves a shot, and even though we fell short, I’m proud of the way that we battled and competed. We played some of the best teams to ever play, and with one of the least experienced teams in the league, we took them down to the wire. We did a lot of things that will help us in the future.
Most importantly, I want to thank the fans for their support this season. I know we didn’t meet all of the expectations, but you stayed loyal. It was amazing to experience and we don’t take you for granted at all. We want to win for you, and we’re excited for what’s to come. It didn’t work out this season, but hopefully, every single member of our team is using that feeling of going home early as fuel for next year.
It’s definitely fuel for me. I can’t stand watching these playoff teams play, and not be able to be a part of it.
THE HEALTH CODE
The number one priority we need to focus on this offseason is our health. We had a lot of guys who were out or were less than 100 percent for parts of the season, myself included.
One of the biggest reasons why I train so hard in the offseason is to be at my strongest and most fit I can possibly be during the grind of the NBA season. Over time, you learn how to fight through pain. You learn how to play through bangs and bruises. Playing with plantar fasciitis was definitely painful, but when a game gets close, the pain kind of just goes away for me. (The most painful part of plantar fasciitis, as anyone who has had it will tell you, is in the mornings, right when you wake up. It’s definitely really sore and painful.)
Somebody who plays the amount of minutes I do is going to be banged up. There’s 82 games, a lot of back-to-back games, and other games where you don’t get much sleep before or after. Learning to get out there on the court, turn the professional switch on and bring it every night is something I take pride in. Although I played 80 games this year, I wish I could have played 82.
Personally, I took it as a challenge when our guys went down. And when I wasn’t 100 percent, we learned that other guys could step up. I thought Rodney Hood and Trey Lyles both played extremely well and had the right mentalities to help us compete in those times. Those experiences allowed me to gain confidence in our younger guys, and that’s important. They also helped us to stay in contention, despite the adversity.
Sometimes, you have injuries that are freak accidents, and there’s nothing you can do about it. However, a lot of them are definitely preventable if you train harder during the offseason. As a leader, I can get guys together, and make sure that we’re training. I can make sure that people have a good place to train. This summer, I’m giving guys the option of coming to work out with me. I want to do everything I can to make sure we’re working together, and moving forward.
HARD WON LESSONS
During the last couple games of the season, we were going up against veteran teams with years of experience on us, and it showed. However, it also showed us how we have to play and compete down the stretch, when we’re fighting for a playoff spot, and teams are amping up the intensity.
Those last games were high-intensity and high-pressure environments. But I honestly don’t think the pressure of the moment played a role. Guys were loose. We felt energized. In those situations, experience and knowing how to play playoff-intensity basketball games just means so much. It’s completely different than playing games in November. The games that we played at the end of the year were basically playoff games, and we just fell short.
There were a lot of games this year where you could tell that we were a younger team, and that it was our first time being in those moments. Then there were some games where we showed that we have the potential to be a really tough team in those situations—a team that can play really well, and get the job done.
The West is super tough. A lot of people have talked about the East, and how it’s gotten so much better. Some say it might be potentially better, top to bottom, than the West. I would disagree with that. The East for sure has gotten better, but look at the top three teams in the West. Those are elite teams. Golden State and San Antonio are historically great teams—two of the best teams to play all-time. The Thunder have arguably two of the top five players in the world right now. We had to play those teams collectively 12 times. You could also throw the Clippers into that discussion. They had a bunch of injuries, but they had as much talent as anybody.
It was good for us as a team to play those guys so many times. We know what it feels like to play against historically great teams. Each and every night, they bring it. We took all of those teams to overtime, and while we fell just short in those games, it was a great learning experience for us. I have no doubt that it will be beneficial for us to have been in those situations.
THE LAST GAME
I think all of us knew that the season finale in Los Angeles—against the Lakers—was going to be pretty crazy. Kobe Bryant is one of the best players to ever play this game and he is loved by fans across the country. Any time he played on the road this season, it was crazy. We saw that in Utah. But this was different. This was the last game of his career, and it was at home. You knew that there were going to be a lot of people, and the fans really, really showed up.
The Rockets were already up by 30 when we were on the bus going to the game. So we knew we probably weren’t going to the playoffs, and that the game in LA was just going to be an experience for all of us. Quite frankly, that’s kind of what it was. It was something we will definitely all remember as players, and probably something we won’t ever be a part of again.
I didn’t really get much of a chance to talk to Kobe before the game—we just exchanged a few words, nothing big. There were probably at least 50 cameras around him. And when the game started, the atmosphere was different from anything I’ve ever experienced. Everyone in the arena was excited whenever he touched the ball. And every time Kobe got it, they wanted him to shoot it, and they were booing us for even trying to defend him.
We were trying to win, and for a while there we were. But at the end of the game, in the closing minutes, everything that transpired kind of shocked us, to be honest. We were up double digits for most of the second half, and we led by 10 with about three minutes to go. So when Kobe started hitting shots and the game started to get close, a lot of us were in shock.
It was like being a part of a showcase, or being in a video game. There wasn’t really much normality about it. A guy scored 60 points and took 50 shots. There was something different as far as his aggressiveness. I think every time he touched it, you knew he was going to try to shoot it, or try to score, or try to get something going. He’s always an aggressive player, but that night, he was ultra-aggressive and tried to score on every single possession.
That’s harder to defend than you might think, when you’re constantly getting screened. If he’s got the ball, it’s going to be a ball screen. If he doesn’t have the ball, it’s going to be a pin-down or some other screen to get him the ball. I thought for the most part, we played pretty tough defense. There were a bunch of possessions where we forced him into tough shots. But he’s Kobe Bryant.
When he starts to hit shots and the crowd starts to get going, you’re just trying to do what you can to stop him. There comes a point where he is in the zone, and there’s almost nothing you can do. And Kobe kind of got to that, there at the end of the game, where he was hitting everything and the crowd was going wild.
It’s something I don’t ever want to have to defend again—a situation where everybody on the other team is working to get shots for one guy. It was definitely a fairy-tale ending for Kobe Bryant and one the sports world will remember forever. Everyone kind of wanted it to be Kobe’s night. Besides us. But that’s how it goes sometimes.
Playing against Kobe is something I’ll never forget. I can remember my rookie year, being kind of star-struck watching him play. But when you’re out there competing against him, he is just the guy that you’re going against and trying to beat. And you better give it everything you have. He was the ultimate competitor and I will always remember playing against him. It’s something I’ll tell my kids about. I’ll be sure to show them the video of me stealing the ball from him and dunking—any highlights I had against him. You’re talking about a guy who is an all-time great. It was truly an honor to compete against him.