I don’t think Mike D’Antoni is out for revenge. That’s too angry a phrase for the mostly composed coach who often elects to seethe over ridicule or ignite.
And saying D’Antoni is seeking retribution would require the Rockets head coach to feel overwhelmingly aggrieved by past losses. An NBA version of Inigo Montoya leaping from franchise to franchise forever in pursuit of the man who killed his championship hopes.
No. Mike D’Antoni shouldn’t be out for revenge or retribution. He should be out for playoff redemption.
In four of these six playoff appearances, D’Antoni’s quest for a title has been summarily ended by Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. Including two hotly contested showdowns in the Western Conference Finals.
Popovich and the Spurs are D’Antoni’s white whale, his El Dorado, his Szechuan McNuggets dipping sauce. The win he hasn’t captured.
And over the last 12 years there’s plenty D’Antoni could harbor ill will about.
In 2005 the Suns won the most games in the NBA. They were promptly treated like a drivers license application by the second-seeded Spurs, who ignored any questions and stamped paperwork on their way to a title by dismissing the revived Suns in five games of the Western Conference Finals.
Then 2007 happened. In game four of the second round series Spurs’ forward Robert Horry laid out Steve Nash:
It was one of the most iconic NBA moments of the 2000s. It resulted in suspensions for Horry (love him, but entirely necessary), Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, who both stepped on the court without intervening. The Malice At The Palace was still reverberating in the NBA HQ.
Horry’s hip-check would become legendary. The Spurs would use the stunted momentum to win the contentious series in six games. In retrospect, the series was essentially the 2007 NBA Finals.
Changes came quickly for Phoenix. In 2008 they limped to the six seed with center Shaquille O’Neal and were quickly dispatched in the first round by the Spurs.
This defeat spelled the end for D’Antoni in Phoenix. The first round exit led him to the New York Knicks, also known as the Long John Silver’s restaurant of NBA franchises. People love it, but it ain’t good.
Popovich delivered his latest bruise to D’Antoni in 2013. At the helm of the Lakers D’Antoni helped will a broken franchise riddled with injuries to an 8th seed in the packed Western Conference. They were swept by the Spurs.
Despite this history, D’Antoni and Popovich seem fine. Two worldly coaches ready to drink wine and trade war stories. Granted the river of loss-inflicted misery has only run a single direction to date.
Through all the years, all the mustaches and all the beards, the relationship seems cordial at worst. Popovich lauded D’Antoni during the failed Lakers stint and pushed back on the stereotype the current Rockets coach knew nothing about defense.
After the 2007 hip-check D’Antoni directed his anger at the league for the suspensions, not at the Spurs or Popovich.
Even this season, Popovich has been laudatory of the Rockets and James Harden. He’s gone so far as to say he doesn’t watch film on any upcoming teams but Houston because “James Harden is ridiculous.”
Winning this series would be huge for Houston and D’Antoni. It would vindicate Moreyball, James Harden’s MVP credentials and coach D’Antoni’s acumen.
So forget Harden-Leonard for a second. Because this coaching duel stretches well before they were running the league.
For D’Antoni this isn’t revenge or retribution, it’s playoff redemption.