Playoffs 2019 West First Round: Rockets (4) vs. Jazz (5)

Rockets not thinking about last playoff ending, but eager for another shot

With swagger intact, Houston more than ready to show it can persevere through any obstacle

Mike D’Antoni’s eyes roll instinctually at the mere mention of the topic of the 2018 Western Conference finals.

Revisit one of the worst moments of your professional life, a memory that gnaws at your subconscious on a constant basis, and see how you react.

You had the reigning champs on the ropes, up 3-2 with two chances to put them away, the second of those on your home floor, in a winner-take-all Game 7 that you toiled all season to make happen, and then watched your team suffer through an epic playoff fail that tore at the fabric and foundation of your team.

So what have you learned from it all Mike D’Antoni?

“Don’t get Chris Paul hurt,” the Rockets coach shot back, eyes rolling as the words rolled off his tongue.

It’s that simple for the no-nonsense D’Antoni.

If only it were that simple for the rest of us who witnessed that Game 7 debacle, when the Rockets missed a mind-blowing 27 straight 3-pointers, and watched the Golden State Warriors snatch any hopes the Rockets had of supplanting them as the cream of the Western Conference crop and replacing them in The Finals.

The Rockets are convinced they were a healthy Paul hamstring away from The Finals a year ago. Nothing will change their minds about that. So they started this season with that belief in the back of their minds, even if it didn’t manifest itself in the way they played.

Even when they were 11-14 and sorting through injuries and issues at the start of this season, they insist their confidence didn’t waiver. Not with Paul and reigning Kia MVP James Harden leading the way, not with the emotional scars from yet another failed coup attempt overflowing amongst the returning core members of the group.

That’s why everything that’s transpired since then — Harden’s rescue ranger routine since that uneven start, the injuries to Paul, Eric Gordon and center Clint Capela that threatened to derail the revival, the additions of Austin Rivers, Iman Shumpert and Kenneth Faried to a deeper and perhaps more versatile supporting cast — has only served to embolden this crew.

They’ve already been humbled on the biggest stage, with everything on the line they fell hard. What could be worse than that?

The only thing to do, if your “swag” is on overload the way Harden swears it remains, is to plot the course for another shot at the Warriors.

So it comes a little earlier than expected, if the Rockets handle their business in a first-round matchup against Utah and the Warriors do the same against the LA Clippers they’ll see each other in the conference semifinals.

That’s fine for a team whose vision is not just with challenging the Warriors but ending and replacing them.

“You know what’s crazy?” Rockets swingman P.J. Tucker said. “As much as possible, from the very start, we just tried to block it out of our minds, what went down. Because when you get that close and your team is feeling that good, like we were on top of our game, our swagger was high, and we had a great season and playoffs before Chris got hurt … we had to block it out of our minds. Because this is really a whole new team this year, a completely different journey. And that’s the one thing we said we were going to emphasize this year. We were not going to suffer from that hangover, that feeling of being right there but not quite getting there.

“No matter how it ends, for whoever wins the championship and everybody else, you’ve got to go through it all over again. There’s a whole new grind waiting on you. We knew what it took to have the kind of season we did have, and we were adamant about not getting caught up in our feelings like that, we’re not going to focus on that. It’s a whole new year.”

When we do what we’re supposed to do … we can beat anybody.”

Rockets’ James Harden

The lessons learned didn’t manifest themselves in performance through the first quarter of this season. The Carmelo Anthony experiment went awry quickly. That made the scapegoating easy for anyone looking to go that route, but it didn’t fix what ailed these Rockets when they were sitting 14th in the standings before Christmas.

That was heavy lifting designed for Harden, whose season really cranked up with a mid-December 50-point triple-double torching of the Los Angeles Lakers at Toyota Center, the start of a run of 32 straight games that saw Harden score 30 or more points, the longest such stretch the NBA had seen since Wilt Chamberlain’s day destroying the competition in the early 1960s.

Harden realized he had no choice but to go there, immediately and every night out, if this particular Rockets team was serious about another run at the Warriors throne.

“I didn’t like where we were at and as the leader of this team, one of the leaders of this team, it was on me to step up,” Harden said after a shootaround practice months later after the Rockets had climbed out of their early season hole and back into the top four of the Western Conference playoff chase. “Somebody had to do something and it was on me and whoever else we had available at the time to lock in and get us back in a groove.”

That groove, that cosmic vibe that was so evident with last year’s team, was tougher to locate this time around. And even though they fell to the fourth spot in the standings on the final night of the regular season (a Paul George 3-point dagger in the Rockets’ season finale a night earlier set the stage), the Rockets are fine with whatever grind is necessary to get a crack at redemption.

“When we do what we’re supposed to do, when we handle our business the right way,” Harden said. “We can beat anybody.”

He doesn’t have to do any preaching in his own locker room.

“For sure, for sure, we operate with an elevated confidence where the Warriors or any other team is concerned,” Tucker said, “because our focus is always on what we do, what we control. Our confidence as a team has never wavered. We’ve always been confident whether we’re rolling at that moment or not, and I think that’s honestly what has made us a great team.”

Great teams get there, they find their way to the biggest moments and cash in on opportunities to compete for the biggest prize. The Rockets know this, they’ve done it.

Championship teams, however, find a way to persevere through whatever obstacles get in the way.

It’s time to find out if these Rockets, once again the clearest and most dangerous threat to the Warriors, are still just a great team or something more.

* * *

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.