Mike D’Antoni knew what needed to happen. The Rockets couldn’t fall into the iso-ball trap again. It’s what they’ve done all season, it’s how they became a 65-win team and secured the No. 1 seed in the wild, wild Western Conference. And it’s how they made it through the first and second rounds of the playoffs to dance with the defending champion Golden State Warriors for a shot at the NBA Finals.
Iso-ball is what the Rockets have done all year long. It’s who they were. But that’s past tense. Insanity is often defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and after Houston was blown out of the water in Game 1, something had to change. D’Antoni knew what is was. He knew what needed to be done.
“We got to get transition, we gotta get Trevor [Ariza] and those guys shots, we gotta get the ball moved up a little bit quicker,” he told reporters after the Rockets’ loss on Monday.
Houston did just that
Sharing the ball is a given, and transition buckets are an indication of turning defense into offense. But pushing the ball in half-court sets was huge for the Rockets in their 127-105 Game 2 win over the Warriors. It was reminiscent of the New Orleans Pelicans, who upset Portland’s staunch defense in the first round by pushing the tempo before the opposing defense could set itself. And it’s how they managed a game against the Warriors in the second round.
The Rockets did it over and over again. Instead of lallygagging until there were seconds left on the clock, then waiting idly for James Harden to cross his man into an oblivion, they got the ball across the halfcourt line with a purpose. Harden still got his opportunities in isolation. After all, he’s the most dangerous perimeter scorer on the planet and taking a man’s most trusted tool essentially renders him useless.
And this time Harden had more help
The Rockets had five players score in double figures this time around, with Trevor Ariza posting 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting after only eight points in Game 1. Eric Gordon exploded for 27 points in 32 minutes after just 15 points two nights prior. P.J. Tucker scored a single point in Game 1 but turned in 22 on Wednesday with just one miss. Ariza and Tucker’s looks came from moving the ball. They came from getting the ball up the court early and often, with Harden and Paul taking advantage of switched mismatches, then dumping the ball off when the help rotates over.
PJ starting the second-half ! pic.twitter.com/H0tT4ihF2T— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) May 17, 2018
And it came from D’Antoni, who saw exactly what the Rockets needed to do to flip the script and change the direction of this series. There’s no telling if Houston can keep this style of play up. They’re heading on the road to Oakland, where Warriors fans are as hostile as they come, especially with a shot at a third NBA championship in four years hanging in the balance.
But the Rockets proved they’re not just a one-dimensional team in Game 2. D’Antoni is a offensive genius who has other tricks up his sleeve. He struck back in the second game. Now, Houston has to defend itself from Golden State’s retaliation in Game 3.