Houston Rockets enter NBA playoffs with nothing to lose

James Harden and the sharp-shooting Rockets don't feel the same pressure as other contenders

Fran Blinebury

Everybody, it seems, has their burdens.

When the 2017 NBA playoffs begin this weekend, the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers will feel the weight of the crown.

If LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and friends thought ending the 52-year Cleveland championship drought was tough, they’ll find what difficult really is when they try to take a second sip of the victory champagne. If they haven’t already.

The Cavaliers have spent the post-All-Star break portion of the schedule like hamsters on a wheel, expending energy and getting nowhere. They try to shrug off the significance of earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, which is more than they seem to do on defense. Try, that is.

At the top of the Western Conference standings are the Warriors and their abundant first world problems — i.e. working to assimilate All-Star Kevin Durant back into a lineup that went 15-4 as his hyperextended left knee mended.

Ever since fantastically blowing a 3-1 lead in last year’s Finals following a record-setting 73-win season, Golden State has felt the kind of pressure that’s normally built up inside a fire hose. Yes, it’s a joy and almost a work of art to watch Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green paint right off the edges of the canvas with their fearless shooting and peerless ball movement. But the Warriors are in a no-win situation. Could it be regarded as anything but a massive underachievement if they win more than 200 regular season games over three years — the best stretch in league history — add former MVP Durant to their already rich lineup and have just one championship to show for it?

The Spurs have cracked the 60-win barrier for the second year in a row and yet have nagging doubts about their backcourt as the postseason approaches. The Clippers walk around shackled by the ball and chain that clanks to remind them that they’re still the Clippers.

So you look around for a group that will enter the playoffs with just the don’t-give-a-damn mix of aptitude and attitude and here are the Rockets, looser than a bucket of fishing worms.

“We fear nobody.”

Rockets guard Patrick Beverley

From the day that Mike D’Antoni took the job as head coach last June and began watching video of James Harden, he’s been waiting for this moment. There was never anything wrong with his pace-and-space style of offense that lit up scoreboards and stretched the boundaries of 3-point shooting in Phoenix a decade ago, except that he wasn’t committed to it quite enough. Now he’s got a bigger, stronger, more skilled Steve Nash in a super-sized James Harden and has pushed the gas pedal on the offense not just down to the mat, but straight through the floor board.

Does anyone think they’re more than a parlor routine? Does anybody truly see them as real contenders? See, nothing to lose. Can they rain 3s four times in seven games to win a playoff series? Could they possibly do that four different times to win a title?

Go ahead and tell Harden, now unleashed as a point guard with the ball in his hands almost all of the time, that there are any questions to ask other than: “What time is tip-off?” Insatiable, unstoppable and coolly arrogant in the best of ways, he’s been licking his chops behind the beard ever since D’Antoni showed him the faith and confidence of putting the entire franchise in his grip. What’s more, at a time when he might feel the opinion polls are tilting away from him, Harden could use every game and every series and every round as a one-man referendum on the MVP voting.

If you’re going to take down the bigger dogs, the much heavier favorites, then you’ll likely need a trick and nobody has a more potent one than the Rockets’ willingness to toss up an average of 40 shots from behind the arc every night. Why an NBA record 40? Only because they ran out of time to take 45 or 50.

After last season’s 41-41 core meltdown, general manager Daryl Morey put the perfect complement of shooters around Harden, signing Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson and then adding Lou Williams for good measure at the trade deadline to allow the Rockets to play the game exactly the way every carefree kid on a playground wants to play.

The center combination of young Clint Capela taking lob passes from Harden to slam them home and veteran Nene cleaning up around the paint has fit together like perfectly-cut puzzle pieces.

Defense is where the teeth are lacking, but Pat Beverley and Trevor Ariza can provide the bite and the swagger.

When the Rockets went on their 20-2 tear from Dec. 1 to Jan 10 and tucked in just behind the Warriors and Spurs with the third-best record in the NBA, their fire was stoked by an inner belief that it could burn down the house.

“We fear nobody,” says Beverley.

Danger plays loose and never looks down.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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