The Houston Rockets fell to the Los Angeles Lakers last night in Game 4 of their second-round Western Conference playoff series. James Harden went 2-of-11 from the field and scored nearly all of his 26 points from the charity stripe. The Lakers went up big early, then withstood a heated comeback from Houston to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
For the last two games, though, the Rockets have been without one of their key backups: Danuel House Jr. House is currently locked in his room while under investigation from the NBA for potentially breaking coronavirus protocol and letting a woman into his room. Who exactly that woman is and under what circumstances she might have gone into House's room is unclear. In fact, the whole situation is very unclear other than the NBA believes it has evidence linking House to a violation of quarantine and aren't letting him play as a result.
House is important but not a game-changer for the Rockets. Under different circumstances where House played the last two games, there's no guarantee the Rockets would have come out on top. But playoff teams are finely-tuned machines, and if you remove one part, it affects all the others. House's absence altered D'Antoni's rotations and takes away another long wing defender to throw at LeBron James and his fellow Lakers.
Ben Golliver over at the Washington Post wrote a story about this strange scenario today, and his sources revealed that the Rockets have not actually been presented with the "circumstantial evidence" linking House to the violation in any formal manner. From the Post:
People with knowledge of the situation, who were granted anonymity to speak candidly about the ongoing investigation, said that the Rockets were “blindsided” by the NBA’s decision and that there had been little direct communication between the league office and team officials and Houston had received no formal presentation of evidence. Instead, communication continues between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association. “The NBA is treating [House] as guilty until proven innocent for safety reasons,” said one person with knowledge of the situation. “They're prioritizing their perception of safety over everything else. The NBPA feels its hands are tied. Any time [the union] talks about due process or presumption of guilt, [the NBA] immediately says, ‘Safety, safety, safety.’ There has to be some limit or balance.”
Golliver also reports the NBA wants to make an example out of House, and wouldn't be going about the situation in the way they are if a superstar were in the same spot:
“If it was a star player, there’s no way [the NBA] would handle it this way,” said a person close to House with direct knowledge of the investigation. “They want to make an example out of somebody.”
This is a tough spot for the league and House to be in. Guilty until proven innocent is not really how this is supposed to work, but in the interest of keeping a global pandemic out of the playoff bubble, the league has to go about it that way. Everyone is naturally dubious about how incriminating the evidence is if the NBA hasn't felt comfortable releasing the information out into the public, but they're more aware than anybody of the optics here, especially given the Rockets are playing LeBron, king of the league. It would be a disastrous look if House ended up being innocent and the NBA kept him out of pivotal playoff games because of circumstantial evidence, as Shams Charania called it in his report yesterday. The NBA knows that as well as we do.
The baffling part about this is that it's taking so long. There are cameras all over campus. It should be a pretty open-and-shut case. Instead it's gotten dragged out over the course of this week. It's a strange saga and one that should come to a close soon, but we're all left confused in the meantime.