2018 Playoffs | Western Conference Finals: Rockets (1) vs. Warriors (2)

Houston Rockets prepared to stay course in Game 2

Why change now? Isolation ball has worked all season for Rockets

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

HOUSTON — Ninety-two games of the same game plan can’t be spoiled by one extremely tough night at the office.

So when the Houston Rockets declare that they will not change their isolation-happy ways after losing Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, and the home court advantage that was their security blanket against the Golden State Warriors, it’s not about arrogance.

It’s about sticking to what works, what has worked for the Rockets all season, from training camp until now.

It’s about staying the course, even during a time when it seems obvious to everyone else that change is needed.

Those 45 isolation plays by just two players, James Harden and Chris Paul, couldn’t deliver the Rockets the win they needed.

But what looked like a stubborn reliance on a scheme that proved futile against the Warriors Monday night, looked a bit different after the Rockets spent the night dwelling on what went wrong.

The Warriors shook the Rockets’ foundation, hit them with so many shots it left them reeling.

“Yeah, we got a little rattled with ourselves and we can’t do that,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Like I said, we’ve got to be able to absorb some body blows. They got us a little bit. We sagged a little bit with our spirit. That won’t happen Wednesday [in Game 2, 9 ET on TNT]. We’re going to have a heck of a good battle on Wednesday.”

A battle that will include the Rockets feasting on a steady diet of the isolation plays that led them to the league’s best record, a franchise-best 65 wins during the regular season.

Too much Harden? Too much Paul? Way too much iso ball?

D’Antoni doesn’t want to hear it, not after all they have done to get here.

“That’s what we do,” he said. “We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it. We can’t get off who we are. Embrace it. Just be better of who we are and don’t worry if somebody else solves the puzzle a different way. Fine, that’s how they solve it. We solve our puzzle this way. We’ve got to play at our strengths. We know our strengths and we’ve just got to do it better.

“You know what? Play through it. So be it. This just comes down to a dogfight. It doesn’t come down to feeling comfortable. Everybody’s feeling uncomfortable. Your hair should be on fire, and you should be playing and spitting blood out there. This is hard stuff to overcome, one of the better teams ever in the history of the NBA. They’ve got to embrace the situation.”

The raw numbers are on D’Antoni’s side. Harden and Paul scored 64 points in Game 1, nearly matching the Warriors’ top two scorers (65 combined for Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson combined for 65).

So the high scorers all but canceled each other out. Where the Rockets cannot afford to falter this time is with Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute are concerned.

They combined for nine points, eight from Ariza, who was limited to just 23 minutes and 21 seconds, due to early foul trouble, 11 rebounds and a number of miscues on both ends that contributed to the Rockets’ struggles.

These are the three men whose chief responsibility was to deal with Durant defensively and fill in whatever gaps the Rockets needed offensively.

Instead, they were the all non-factors. Tucker missed all three of his shots, two from beyond the 3-point line, and Mbah a Moute finished 0-for-6 from the floor, missing three layups and two wide-open 3-pointers.

The mistakes are correctible, Ariza said. They watched the film. There weren’t any surprises. The in-game communication issues won’t be an issue going forward. And the confidence they’ve had in their game plan and each other all season, won’t crumble under the pressure of a must-win Game 2.

You know what? Play through it. So be it.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni

“Yeah, the confidence is always here,” Ariza said. “We are a confident team. We feel like we have two of the best players in the NBA and the players around them are the best at what they do as well. So it’s just about us coming out and knowing that and continuing to play like that.”

Harden did his part to make sure his teammates understood exactly what’s at stake. And he’s in lockstep with his coach about the Rockers staying the course the rest of this series.

Why change now?

“That’s what we’ve been doing all year long,” he said. “We went two months and maybe lost a game or two by doing what we do. So it won’t change; we’ve just got to do it better. They did what they do better than what we do better last night. So we watched film and we’ve just got to do it a little harder.”

They need to play with the same “swag” that led them to the top of the heap during the regular season.

“That’s what we’ve had all year,” Harden said. “That’s why we’re in this position. Last night at times we didn’t have it. We’ve got to have it the full course of the game, especially playing against the Warriors.”

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.

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