Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni gushed about forward Danuel House Jr. on Monday. 

“I think he’s blossoming into one of the better players in the league,” D’Antoni said in a Zoom conference. “He’s playing with a lot of energy, athletically, making great decisions on defense and offense. He’s come a long ways, and who knows — I still think he’ll improve and get better. There’s no reason why he’s not one of the better players in the league.”

This was an exaggeration, but the rave was for a reason. The previous night, House had certainly been one of Houston’s best players in Game 2 of its second-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers. He made a disastrous first quarter a little less so by hitting three 3s in the last three minutes, and he finished with 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting and five rebounds. The Rockets lost 117-109, but they also erased a 21-point first-half deficit. 

House didn’t play in Game 3 on Tuesday, though, and his status for the rest of the playoffs is now in question as the NBA investigates House for an alleged protocol violation. House has denied the allegation that, late Monday night, he allowed into his room a woman who had entered the bubble to administer COVID-19 testing, according to Yahoo Sports and The Athletic.

Before Game 4 on Thursday, D’Antoni said in a Zoom conference that he doesn’t know if House will return in the series.

“The investigation is still going on,” D’Antoni said, “so when they come out with their ruling or whatever, then we’ll just go from there.”

D’Antoni said that, as far as he knows, House will be unavailable Thursday. This is not a small loss for the Rockets. House may have gone undrafted and bounced around before finding steady ground in Houston, but he has become an important part of a contending team. 

“Everybody’s going to have to do a little bit more,” D’Antoni said. “And obviously Austin [Rivers] and Ben [McLemore] will have to contribute. So, we just gotta pick up the pieces.”

In Houston, role players are primarily responsible for spacing the floor and playing tough defense. House does that, and his switchability is particularly important against the Lakers because LeBron James exploits mismatches as well as anybody in the history of the sport.

Should McLemore continue to get some of the playing time that went to House, James will continue to put him in pick-and-rolls. Jeff Green’s minutes increased in Game 3, too, and, as effective as he was against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Green has struggled defensively against Los Angeles. If Rivers gets more run, the team loses some strength and physicality on defense. 

The Rockets will also miss House on the offensive end. He is a tertiary playmaker at best on this team, with a 15.3 percent usage rate in the playoffs (an increase from 13.5 percent in the regular season!), but the Thunder learned the hard way that he is not just a 3-and-D guy.  In the seeding games, House did most of his non-stop-up damage with stepback 3s; in the first round, he attacked the rim in transition against OKC’s set defense:

House showed off some of the same stuff against the Lakers in Houston’s ill-fated comeback. My favorite play of the game was when he took the entire team by surprise with a coast-to-coast drive: 

He had a nifty finish around former Texas A&M teammate Alex Caruso, too:

House is no star, but he’s exactly the kind of player stars need around them. Without him, the Rockets are less versatile, less deep and less dangerous. Down 2-1 against the top seed, his absence could be critical. Series have swung on much less. 

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