The Rockets who took the court for a 110-100 loss to the Lakers in Game 4 — a contest that was far less competitive than the final score indicated — left themselves befuddled with their poor showing in a series that Los Angeles now leads 3-1.
James Harden, who scored 21 points but shot just 2-11 from the field, said that it was a “good question” why Houston came out flat for three quarters, but stopped there before offering any depth. Russell Westbrook, who scored a team-high 25 points, said he “[didn’t] have an explanation” for why there was no “sense of urgency.” Coach Mike D’Antoni said only that there was a “lack of spirit,” minutes after loud shouting from inside Houston’s locker room could be heard in the arena’s hallway.
It’s no coincidence that the Rockets’ collapse against the Lakers has coincided with the NBA’s investigation of forward Danuel House for violating the bubble’s health and safety protocols, and center Tyson Chandler, who was initially suspected but later cleared.
House, a 27-year-old backup forward in his fourth season, did not play in Game 3 or Game 4, with the Rockets citing “personal reasons” for his first absence. While the NBA has not formally announced a ruling or even that it is investigating House, people with knowledge of the situation confirmed that House was sidelined for hosting an unauthorized guest at the Rockets’ team hotel. House has maintained his innocence, although NBA security investigators felt they had sufficient evidence to keep him out of a playoff series that was tied at one game apiece.
The Rockets were informed Tuesday — the day of their Game 3 loss to the Lakers — that Chandler and House were under investigation after the NBA discovered that a female subcontractor who worked in the bubble had passed security checkpoints and gained access to the Grand Floridian hotel on Monday night. Chandler was subsequently cleared to rejoin the team for Game 4; House was not, and he has remained confined to his hotel room this week as he awaits word from the league on his status.
There had been no indication as of Thursday night that House will cleared before Saturday’s Game 5, in which Houston faces elimination. Previous violators of the NBA’s quarantine protocol, including Sacramento Kings center Richaun Holmes and Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams, have been required to remain quarantined for up to 10 days, which would sideline House for the duration of the series even if it went seven games.
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.”
Per the NBA’s health and safety protocols, which were designed to limit the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus on the Disney World campus, players are prohibited from hosting guests in their hotel rooms, and their contact with anyone who hasn’t cleared the NBA’s quarantine process, like housekeepers, is strictly regulated. Some contractors working in the bubble undergo regular coronavirus testing but may live off-campus, thereby presenting a greater risk to players, who have been sequestered from the outside world since early July. Through Thursday, no player has tested positive for the coronavirus since entering the NBA bubble.
Access to the players’ hotel is strictly limited to outsiders, including media members, and closely monitored by multiple layers of security, including Disney security, local police and other law enforcement agencies. The perimeter of the campus is monitored by video surveillance, and there are cameras located inside the hotel lobby. The league even set up a tip hotline for on-campus residents to report rule violations.
At present, the Rockets are the only team in the Grand Floridian hotel. The other seven teams that were housed there at the start of bubble play in July have been eliminated. The NBA did not force the Rockets to move to the Gran Destino Tower, which is home to the Lakers and five other teams remaining in the playoffs, giving them free rein over the sprawling property.
“I like it,” Westbrook said after closing out the Thunder. “We get to go back to a campus where it’s just us. No other teams. Just us at the Grand Floridian.”
House, who averaged a career-high 10.5 points and 4.2 rebounds this season, is an important and underrated piece for the Rockets. A capable shooter with good size, he stepped in as a starter when an injured Westbrook missed time earlier in the playoffs. Last week, House told reporters that he felt he was “slept on heavily with a pillow and a blanket,” and these playoffs had offered him the chance to have a coming-out party.
Unfortunately, House has now made headlines for all the wrong reasons and Houston’s season could end Saturday.
“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.”
The Rockets have other problems besides House’s absence, of course. Harden has struggled to handle the Lakers’ double teams, Westbrook has played erratically at times and LeBron James has been the series’ dominant force, logging 36 points in Game 3 and tallying 16 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists in Game 4. The Lakers smelled blood on Thursday, and built an early lead that they never relinquished.
Yet the NBA’s investigation of House adds another chapter to a controversy-filled season that began with General Manager Daryl Morey angering the Chinese government with a tweet supporting Hong Kong protesters. The Rockets steadied themselves after the rocky start, built momentum after the midseason trade of Clint Capela and scored a satisfying series win over the Thunder. Now, they are watching their hopes of knocking off the Lakers fade under the weight of a significant and ill-timed off-court distraction.
Even if they don’t want to publicly admit it.
“That’s a great excuse to trot out,” D’Antoni said after Game 4, when asked about the House investigation. “We’re not doing that. I understand it’s 3-1 [in the series]. We’ve got to win the next game.”