2018 NBA Playoffs

After record-breaking season, Rockets launch into drive for championship

Can Harden, Paul and D'Antoni eliminate ghosts of postseason failures past?

HOUSTON — Here in Space City, it is all about the launch, and as they prepare for the NBA playoffs the Rockets have never gotten this much regular-season bounce in their history. This prelude is better than what Moses Malone and Rudy Tomjanovich did. Better than the Towers of Ralph Sampson and rookie Akeem Olajuwon. Better than Hakeem Olajuwon (spelling change) and Big Shot Rob (aka Robert Horry) and Kenny “The Jet” Smith managed. Better than Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Sir Charles. Better than Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.

This team just won a league-and franchise-high 65 games, claimed the 2017-18 regular-season title and home-court advantage for the Western Conference playoffs. And most refreshing of all, emerged mostly free of battle scars from the grind (get well soon, Luc Mbah a Moute).

This team boasts the strong Kia MVP favorite in James Harden, who could win the award over LeBron James and get little to no blowback from the basketball public if he does.

They have Mike D’Antoni, the Professor of Offensive Basketball and reigning Coach of the Year who followed up 2016-17 with a season just as satisfying as that one — if not more.

They bring nine-time All-Star point guard Chris Paul, too. The welcome newcomer had a static-free seven-month bond with Harden and, therefore, threw a javelin through the notion that ball-dominant players and strong personalities can’t share the court, too.

The Rockets have pretty much done it all since October, with buckets of 3-pointers, a top-10 defense and a rumble through the NBA that left a trail of scattered bodies (including one in particular from the Bay Area). It was, says D’Antoni, “a special season” that checked all the boxes and set the franchise record for wins and chest-bumps.

This was cleanly executed, almost flawlessly performed and noticeably free of setbacks and drama. Yet Harden, speaking for everyone involved, could only summarize it with an obvious observation: “We haven’t done anything yet.”

But of course. The optimism in Houston generated from where the Rockets sit at the table of championship contenders is served with a side dish of hesitation.

Shared vision drives Paul, Harden

There is nothing but confidence buzzing inside the locker room … and a degree of skepticism outside of it. One reason is because the defending-champion Golden State Warriors are still standing in the way, keeping Houston’s dynasty as a work in progress.

The other? That would be the playoff ghosts of Paul, of Harden and of D’Antoni, the three most important members of this Rockets run who must distance themselves from previous springtime failures — or become buried by them.

A championship for those three wouldn’t quite have the reverberation LeBron James’ win for Cleveland in 2016 did or even what the Warriors’ title in 2015 did for the Bay Area after a 40-year NBA title drought. But it would have its own special place for three people who’ve helped shape the NBA we see today.

Maybe it’s no coincidence, then, that the Basketball Gods put them on the same team and essentially formed the league’s most obvious support group. But don’t expect them to sit around a circle and swap what-if tales. When you raise the subject with Paul, Harden and D’Antoni — here on the eve of this, their best shot at a title — they refuse to make a big deal out of what’s undoubtedly a Big Deal.

… What I’ve learned is James wants this as bad as anyone. His love for the game is strong. He loves to play just as much as anybody I’ve been around.”

Chris Paul, on teammate James Harden

Do they accept accountability for the past? Yes, although in each case, circumstances beyond their control dictated quick playoff exits. Do they dwell on it? Not in public anyway, although a title is clearly the missing piece of their respective legacies. And, your hunch says, an irritating (if not painful) void.

“We know it would mean everything to them,” said Rockets forward and resident tough-guy PJ Tucker. “I mean, they deserve one. Probably should have one by now.”

Maybe that changes soon, especially for Paul. Nobody has played in more playoff games (76) and without reaching the conference finals. It is easily the scarlet letter in the career of a future Hall of Famer. With Harden, Paul is blessed with the only NBA top-five teammate he’s ever had (sorry, Blake Griffin). In D’Antoni, he has a coach who’s receptive to suggestions and has an overall better shot at beating the mighty Warriors. Both are things Paul couldn’t manage on the LA Clippers when facing the Steve Kerr-era Warriors.

Only once, however, did Paul face-splat in the playoffs. That came in late in Game 5 of the 2014 conference semifinals against the Thunder, as his Clippers blew a big lead and a chance to go up 3-2. Oklahoma City would close out the series in Los Angeles. In the 2015 West semis, the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rockets, but Paul was mostly superb in that series. In fact, his playoff averages (21.4 points, 9.4 assists, 38.1 percent on 3-pointers) are in line with his season averages.

He’s tremendous to James, who has another guy he respects and can depend on. Chris can give him a rest off the ball and when that happens we don’t lose the lead; the lead goes up.”

Hall of Famer and Rockets analyst Clyde Drexler, on Chris Paul

After that crushing loss to the Rockets came an avalanche of crummy luck. Paul and Griffin suffered injuries that either limited them or knocked them out of the playoffs. With limited scoring options sans Paul and Griffin, the Clippers had no chance. Still, no team that won 60 percent of its games over a six-season stretch failed to make the conference finals … except the Paul-led Clippers.

Paul’s arrival in Houston runs somewhat parallel to Drexler’s back in 1995. The Hall of Famer spent a 11 1/2 seasons with the Blazers without winning a title, although he did reach two Finals (1990, ’92). His championship moment didn’t come until he joined Olajuwon and raised the trophy. Drexler, now a TV analyst for the Rockets, feels a kinship with Paul’s path.

“I said it 30 years ago, it’s a team sport not an individual sport, and you can have 50 points and 30 rebounds but if I miss two free throws at the end of the game, we don’t win,” Drexler said. “It’s always nice to be on a team that’s good enough and lucky enough and healthy enough but it doesn’t always happen.

“He’s phenomenally skilled, highly talented, one of the best to ever play the game. He’s tremendous to James, who has another guy he respects and can depend on. Chris can give him a rest off the ball and when that happens we don’t lose the lead; the lead goes up.”

After Paul nudged the Clippers to trade him to Houston last summer, Paul made a point to forge a relationship with Harden right away, within days. That was critical as Paul wanted to let Harden know he wasn’t coming to overwhelm Harden, only to help him. It’s no coincidence that Paul’s popular State Farm commercials seized the chance to add Harden this year.

“Absolutely,” said Paul, when asked about the importance of that time together. “This all started this summer when we spent some time together. We got a tight knit group because of that. And what I’ve learned is James wants this as bad as anyone. His love for the game is strong. He loves to play just as much as anybody I’ve been around. You don’t know about these things until you’re with somebody for a while.”

… If I’m at home and if it’s an off night, he’ll call me and say, ‘Hey, did you see the game, are you watching the game?’ He loves basketball … Every day I learn something from him.”

James Harden, on Chris Paul

It might be an advantage for Paul in that, probably for the first time in his life, he’s not the most important player on the team. Once this year’s votes are added up, Harden is expected to collect more MVP love than anyone except LeBron.

“There’s no egos,” said Paul, explaining why this has worked. “Everything is collaborative.”

The ball is mostly in Harden’s hands, which makes sense, given his ability to create for himself and others. He finished as the league’s scoring champ with 30.4 ppg and ranked third in assists (8.8 apg), behind only James and Rajon Rondo. Both stats are reflective of Harden’s talent and Paul’s willingness to play the co-star.

Harden’s playoff ghosts aren’t as sinister as Paul’s as he has reached the conference finals three times and, as a member of the Thunder, made it to The Finals in 2012. Yet he evaporated in that championship series, and no-showed in Game 6 of the 2017 West semis when the Rockets were eliminated by the Spurs.

Harden had gaudy playoff numbers in the last three postseasons (27.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 5.5 apg) without the benefit of a reliable No. 2 guy to absorb some of the heat. Therefore, he sounds relieved, more than anything, when discussing his chances with Paul.

“It’s just his passion, how much he cares, how much he studies,” said Harden. “It shows up on the court. And if I’m at home and if it’s an off night, he’ll call me and say, ‘Hey, did you see the game, are you watching the game?’ He loves basketball, and that gives you that extra drive because you know he’s tuned in. Here’s a guy, that’s 13 years in the league, and he still has the enthusiasm like he’s a rookie. He brings so much to this team and obviously to myself. Every day I learn something from him.”

New-yet-familiar style for D’Antoni, Rockets

Of all coaches, D’Antoni might be the one who has influenced much of what we see from today’s game: torrid offensive pace, an infatuation with the 3-pointer and a spread floor.

Before he took over the job and the Rockets began breaking NBA records for 3-point shooting and scoring, he oversaw the Phoenix Suns and their seven-seconds-or-less approach to shooting. It became revolutionary and although those teams were entertaining as heck (and rolled up the score), they produced zero championships. He is 32-38 lifetime in the postseason.

That of course led to a chorus about D’Antoni’s basketball-on-steriods system and how it was hamstrung by the slower, defensive-minded pace of the playoffs. This ignored the reality that the Suns then were no match in the playoffs for Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks and Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs (and later Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers), no matter how many scoreboards they broke.

Also, the offense the Rockets employ is an almost completely different approach to basketball than those Suns’ teams (or the Linsanity teams D’Antoni coached in New York). Phoenix didn’t rely nearly as much on the long ball as they used All-Stars Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire to pick-and-roll folks to a slow death.

And the Rockets don’t fast break like those Phoenix teams. If anything, D’Antoni has proved masterful in creating a system that best exploits his team’s strengths, and this year had to tweak it to embrace what Paul brings.

Everybody’s trying to put a label on things. Sometimes you can’t. The player dictates how they play and we’re trying to allow them to be the best version of themselves.”

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni

He says, with some modesty: “You go with the skill level of the players, which has gotten so much better lately. The 3-point shot has done that. If you can’t shoot 3s, you better be really good at other things. The 3 has changed the way players have looked at the game, how coaches coach the game.”

His system has perhaps inflated the profile of role players such as Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza. They have a combined zero All-Star appearances but often deliver massive games, thanks partly to the number of open looks at the basket.

D’Antoni adds: “You just try to get the most out of what you got. Everybody’s trying to put a label on things. Sometimes you can’t. The player dictates how they play and we’re trying to allow them to be the best version of themselves. I will say this is the best team I’ve been around. Never had a team this deep.”

As for the Rockets’ chances of getting hardware with this approach, D’Antoni doesn’t grit his teeth as much anymore about the question. Rather, he says, why not?

“There’s not a concrete reason of, ‘Yeah, but it was in the regular season.’ No, it’s all the same,” he said. “So, there’s no reason why we can’t. We just haven’t proven it. But we haven’t had this team to be able to prove it. Obviously, the playoffs are a different animal. It’s exciting more than anything. Definitely not a worry.”

Some Rockets were privately annoyed when Kerr said the Warriors could beat anyone without Stephen Curry (who finished the season injured). They also wondered why Golden State still doesn’t have as much respect for the Rockets as they should, even after losing twice to Houston this season. Without a doubt, the Warriors are in the Rockets’ heads, as they should be, since no other team in the West lives in the same area code as these two.

“They know about us,” Gordon said. “They know. There’s a reason we have the best record. As long as we play together on offense and on defense as we have been, I’ll take out chances against anybody.”

Paul said he will enter the playoffs more confident about this team’s chances than any he’s ever been on before, which says plenty, considering the Clippers had three All-Stars in their prime.

“We got so many different weapons,” Paul said, “so many different ways to play. The spirit of our team has just been right.”

Harden adds: “The groundwork that we put in from last year, the additions this year, it’s put us where we want to be.”

During the summer together prepping for this season, Harden and Paul envisioned a 2017-18 where they would get the best record in the NBA, grab home court for the playoffs and, in June, finally discover what the Larry O’Brien trophy felt like. They’re two-thirds there to a finish line that always managed to extend just beyond their reach.

Are the Rockets the biggest threat to the Warriors? Or a bigger one to themselves?

Harden claims a clear sense of what the immediate future will bring for himself, D’Antoni, Paul and the Rockets, and with the regular season they just had, he is expecting to witness this:

“Greatness,” he said.

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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