HOUSTON -- The Houston Rockets hadn’t yet gotten to the point where they were going to hire a crop duster to seed the clouds or search for a medicine man to make skies open up and start a downpour.
“We know who we are,” said James Harden.
The rain men that can make it come down in buckets. That is, 3-point buckets, if only they would stick to the plan.
Day after day through consecutive losses to the San Antonio Spurs, they kept telling themselves to stay faithful to their identity and the shots would fall.
It wasn’t true, they insisted, that San Antonio had done a near-perfect job of running them off the 3-point line. Because even in defeat they had gotten off 34 and 39 shots from behind the arc.
Eventually, they believed, those shots would fall.
When it happened on Sunday night at Toyota Center there were not enough umbrellas and galoshes in all of Texas to stop the Spurs from getting soaked to their bones and washed away.
"When we drive and kick, that’s how we want to play. That’s when the shots are better and that’s when we’re at our best."
It wasn’t just that the Rockets had to keep taking all those 3s, but how and when they were taking them. Gone were the tentative drives down the lane or along the baseline and the raft of soft, errant floaters from Game 3. In their place were the definitive, determined hard drives to the basket and the sharp kicks back to the perimeter for those open shots. They were shots that were more in the rhythm of the way they want to play -- fast, fast and faster.
“We’ve kind of emphasized it the whole series and all year,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. “It kicks in sometimes. I thought we did a great job of having patience with drive-ins. Drive-kick, drive-kick, instead of just throwing up a quick floater, which is kind of what they want. We were able to keep moving our people and keep driving until we found the easier shot and it worked.”
It worked because the Rockets put their offense into overdrive from the opening tip, forcing the tempo, forcing the Spurs to scramble and forcefully creating their scoring chances. They finished with just 15 fastbreak points in the game, but piled up 13 of those in the first quarter alone when they wrapped their fingers around the throats of the Spurs. Once it became a scramble, the Spurs simply fell apart.
“You know our bible begins with transition defense and if it’s not there, then we’re not ready to go,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “If you had seen the (video) clips of our transition D, you would have traded all the players and fired me by the end of the game. So it was that bad. Plus they (Rockets) were intense. They were that focused. They were that professional and we were not.”
The Rockets kept their poise after back-up center and interior physical presence Nene suffered a groin injury in the second quarter and couldn’t return. They shifted forward Ryan Anderson to center for stretches in the second half to back up Clint Capela and never missed a beat on offense because the 3-ball just kept falling.
“What was going through my mind was: ‘3-2, 3-2.’ I kind of liked the math,” D’Antoni said.
The No. 2 scoring offense in the NBA this season was coming off back-to-back games of being held under 100 points was able to regain its stride because Harden, in addition to scoring 28 points, was able to set up his teammates with a dozen assists. When Harden scored 43 in Game 3 and finished with only five assists, the Rockets were hardly lethal.
But here was Eric Gordon shooting 6-for-9 on 3s, Anderson knocking down a trio and Trevor Ariza another pair. That’s in addition to four from Harden.
“It’s not just getting those 3-point shots, but how we get them,” Anderson said. “When we drive and kick, that’s how we want to play. That’s when the shots are better and that’s when we’re at our best.”
As a result, the Rockets kept alive their record of having not lost back-to-back home games all season long.
“They were able to channel their emotions in a positive way,” D’Antoni said. “We know where we messed up a couple days before and with everything riding, we were able to channel in the right way. That’s impressive. We’ve done it all year. So it was not real surprising. But this was the big stage. We have a lot of work left and there’s no reason why we can’t go to San Antonio and repeat the performance.”
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