This year was supposed to be different.
This was the year Mike D’Antoni finally had full, organization and personal buy-in for his system. He’s so carefree and loose he’s sleeping better at night and leaving work early, and letting a reporter in on his private moments doing crossword puzzles with his wife. The league had confirmed his genius, and now was the time for him to ascend to his throne at the top of basketball.
This was the year James Harden got it. The self-sacrifice all superstars must learn so they can take their team beyond where a mere All-Star could go, to ascend to the level of giants and trade blows with them from the top of the mountain. He had subjugated his scoring in the Rockets’ best performances, unleashing and elevating his teammates while engineering blowouts of some of the best defenses in the NBA.
This was the year the role players were not the type to shrink away from the moment. Eric Gordon, Lou Williams and Ryan Anderson were supposed to be weapons from all over the court, moving for James Harden so the offense would look like a symphony rather than the solo of years past. Or, in the case of the closing minutes of Game 5, a poorly executed cadenza.
It may still be different. Most of the players who were on the court for the Rockets’ epic Game 6 comeback against the Clippers in 2015 are gone. Corey Brewer and Josh Smith were fearless and reckless, and, long-term, that didn’t work out so well. But for a magical night, when Harden wilted, those guys went crazy and saved the season. Harden came back for a magnificent Game 7, and the Rockets completed a miracle.
Gone is the fearlessness. Anderson had one of his best games as a Rocket at one of the most important moments, including a go-ahead three-pointer with 47 seconds left in overtime, and Patrick Beverley joined him in the scoring column in the game’s final stanza. But the team, and its coach, shrank away from the moment.
The Spurs do not shrink. They do not wilt. They do not fold. The Oklahoma City Thunder gave the Rockets free passes on horrendous late-game execution last round. We knew then the Spurs wouldn’t give the Rockets the same courtesy, and we were proven right.
This is now at least the fourth close game that the Rockets have played poorly in just these playoffs. When they have won, it has either been through Westbrookian fourth-quarter chucking or by the blowout. When they games have gotten tight, so have the Rockets.
The two men who have captured the attention and the fascination of the NBA this year, both for their individual greatness and dynamic with one another, are in very familiar, uncomfortable territory.
D’Antoni has years of history trying, and failing, to get past the Spurs in the playoffs. There is a not-insignificant number of playoff games to suggest that it’s not his system that doesn’t do well in the playoffs, merely him. He made the executive decision to go with a seven-man rotation, go small and have Harden guard LaMarcus Aldridge or Pau Gasol for most of the games. Unsurprisingly, after some of the hardest 43 minutes of his career, his legs were nowhere to be found.
It’s not just that Harden held the ball at the top of the key for too long at the end of the game. He just stood there.
He didn’t dribble or dance. He didn’t gesture at his teammates to move around. He just stood there, clutching the ball, shielding it from Jonathon Simmons, as the clock wound down on his triple-double and he was hoping to merely out-wait the Spurs, hoping they just wouldn’t convert after another possession he was too tired to take his team through.
Harden had 9 turnovers in Game 5, the most so far in these playoffs, and the most he’s had in any playoff game since that game. Rockets fans are used to this routine, of him expending everything for a beautiful three-and-a-half quarters of a basketball, and, when the tank is low, rather than give the ball to his teammates and try to get some air, he holds it, sucking it out of them as well.
There are two games left in this season, for all intents and purposes, and the Rockets have to win both of them for a happy ending. Losing to a historically great team with dignity in the conference finals is a far different than choking away a series against a hobbled in-state rival.
Being loose, carefree, efficient and eccentric is all well and good if you perform in the highest-pressure situations. James Harden and Mike D’Antonio have a long history of the former but not the latter.
The dynamic duo, the puppetmaster and the maestro, have two games to show they can do both.