OAKLAND, Calif. — Mike D’Antoni said the word everyone else was thinking after watching his team surrender shortly after halftime Sunday at Oracle Arena.
The Houston Rockets, the team built to unseat the mighty Golden State Warriors, handcrafted by Daryl Morey and coached all season to impose its will on the opposition, was nowhere to be found.
“Soft” is the word D’Antoni used, the G-rated version, as it turned out, on a night when even Warriors’ superstar Stephen Curry tiptoed over to the dark side of the English language to describe his mood.
Soft is an epic understatement for what the Rockets were in this 126-85 annihilation in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, a game that swung the momentum in this series dramatically back in the Warriors’ favor as they take a 2-1 lead into Tuesday’s Game 4.
The 41-point margin marked the largest in both Warriors (victory) and Rockets (defeat) playoff history.
“A loss is a loss, whether it’s by two or two hundred, it doesn’t matter,” Rockets forward Trevor Ariza said. “It’s only 2-1 right now. We have another game to prepare for and that’s all we can do at this point.”
That makes sense if you’re the Rockets and you’re still playing the numbers game that says all you have to do is get one game in Oakland. But you were supposed to be above that. You were supposed to be on the Warriors’ level.
Instead, twice already in this series the Rockets have looked like the shell of the team that owned the NBA during the regular season, rattling off a franchise-best 65 wins in the process.
They were indeed soft on both ends of the floor in Game 3 and allowed the Warriors to awaken Curry, who erupted for a game-high 35 points after struggling through the first two games of the series.
The targeted precision of their offensive and defensive strikes on Curry that flipped the momentum in Game 2 were flicked away this time. Curry went off, the Rockets limped to the finish and only have a day between games to make sense go it all and be ready for the biggest game of their season so far.
“We didn’t switch up into people, we didn’t box off,” D’Antoni said. “It’s just one thing led to another. Played soft, actually. I mean, you can’t do that with these guys.”
And now the Rockets are caught up in the Warriors’ matrix for the next 48 hours. They’ve been smoked twice in three games in this series, have already surrendered the home-court advantage they spent an entire season chasing and securing, and no explanation for how they could play with so little force in a game that required their best.
“Well, again, second game was pretty big too and they came out the same way,” D’Antoni said. “It’s just the way it goes sometimes. It flows like that. But I thought the way we got down early and didn’t do the little things to get us in there, and then we’d have found some more energy. They gave us a haymaker and we went down.”
If the Rockets intend to be taken seriously as a championship contender, as a team capable of foiling the Warriors’ plans for a fourth straight Western Conference crown and third NBA title in four seasons, these sorts of performances cannot happen.
Game 4 becomes a monumental contest for both sides, the swing game of the series according to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who insists his team will approach the contest with the appropriate fear needed after the Rockets bounced back to dominate Game 2 after their loss in the opener.
The Rockets are playing with fire if they are going to put their entire season on the line Tuesday. D’Antoni pulled his regulars in plenty of time to make sure they would be rested for that showdown.
“I could have come in here and we could have lost by two points and we could have played guys, 40 or 45 minutes and be dead tired,” he said. “Well, we’re not. Let’s see what we can do Tuesday.”
Not that the game needed any extra pressure. But the difference between these two teams this time of year couldn’t be more stark in contrast.
The Warriors, who won their 16th consecutive home playoff game to eclipse the Chicago Bulls' record of 15 over the 1990 and 1991 postseasons, thrive in these high-pressure situations.
They are made for these moments. They’ve been battle tested in each of the previous three seasons in ways this Rockets team simply has not, what with all of their newness.
Assuming the same reflex that worked in the aftermath of Game 1 will work again now is being wildly presumptive for a team with no track record of overcoming these sorts of odds.
Perhaps that’s why there was absolutely no dispute of D’Antoni’s words from his starts after Sunday night’s debacle.
Both James Harden and Chris Paul agreed with D’Antoni’s “soft” label and his overall assessment that his team failed to show anything close to the sort of energy a desperate team needs to.
“Coach is right,” Paul said. “We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to come out more aggressive … we knew we were going get a great game from them being back here at home, but we’ve got to be better in Game 4."
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