Rockets better at defending themselves than Warriors
Houston disputes idea isolation plays won’t work on Golden State after Game 1 loss.
HOUSTON — The makeshift television studio perched above one of the four corners of the Toyota Center is where basketball conversations are driven, with Ernie Johnson hosting a TNT show flanked by Shaquille O’Neal to his right and Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley to his left.
After 48 minutes during which the Golden State Warriors defeated the Houston Rockets 119-106 in the Western Conference finals opener Monday night, the guys on set made up their mind.
“I don’t feel good about this series right now,” said Barkley, a former Rocket.
Smith, another former Rocket, questioned the viability of the style of offense Houston is playing — isolation-heavy without a lot of movement.
“I said the Rockets can win the series, but they can’t win it the way they’ve been playing. They have to be uncomfortable and do something different,” Smith said. “Mike D’Antoni is a great offensive mind. He’s a great coach. He might say, ‘Now I might do something different.’ But you had to test the water to see if you could play that way and win.
“The water’s tested. It’s cold and it’s deep.”
Word made its way back to D’Antoni, because the Rockets coach spent much of his Tuesday media session defending his offensive strategy.
“One thing we can shore up is be sure to keep all the noise out,” he said. “We talked about that. … We play the way we play. When we’ve played that way, we’re pretty good.”
When asked what he meant by noise, D’Antoni focused on unnamed critics of the Rockets’ isolation play.
“Like, ‘Oh my gosh the [isolations], that’s all we do.’ No, it isn’t. That’s what we do best,” he said. “We scored like 60% of the time on that. Oh, really? ‘Oh, they don’t pass, everybody’s standing.’ Really? Have you watched us for 82 games? That’s what we do. We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it.”
The Rockets had one of the best offenses in the NBA this season because of how good Harden and, to an extent, Chris Paul are in situations when they can go one on one against certain defenders. It was clear to D’Antoni early this season that would be the way his team plays.
“What is the best way we can play this team with this talent? This is the best way,” D’Antoni said. “We won 65 games … so why wouldn’t we play this way? I think this is the best.
“James is one of the best, if not the best ever, one-onone player.”
Maybe, though the Rockets were too much of who they are during Game 1.
Harden scored 41 points in the opener, but he held the ball for long stretches, repeatedly dribbling it between his legs while he was being defended in mismatches by the likes of former UCLA big man Kevon
Looney. Sometimes he’d score, sometimes he wouldn’t, but it usually took a long time with the other four Rockets standing, watching and waiting.
According to Second Spectrum statistics, Harden had 28 touches that lasted longer than 10 seconds. The Warriors, combined, had just 17 10-second touches.
Rockets guard Eric Gordon told the Undefeated after the game he felt the Rockets needed to go in a different direction.
“We can’t isolate as much against a good defensive team,” he said. “I don’t care who you are. We have some of the best isolation players out there. But against a team like that, it’s going to be too tough.”
Paul, confident knowing his team led the NBA in wins this season, said the Rockets need to be resolute.
“We are who we are,” Paul said to repeated questions about the Rockets’ one-onone play. “We got here, 65 wins, so at the end of the day, I think we’re going to be who we are.”
Harden said it’s fair to say the Rockets’ bigger adjustments in Game 2 on Wednesday will be on the defensive end, where they need to be more disciplined in their switching and quicker to recover in transition.
The Warriors? Well, there’s not a lot of reason to do much differently. And they don’t expect the Rockets to look like a drastically different team, no matter what people are saying.
“It’s not like in the playoffs you can just change who you are. You’ve got to be who you are,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “You’ve got to play the way you play. But you’ve got to do that better. That’s what everyone does.”
So don’t expect the Rockets to discover pace and passing in favor of deliberate dribbling in Game 2.
“We can run a thousand plays. At the end of the day, if James looks up, and there’s Looney right in front of him because they switched everything, well, we have to take advantage of that,” D’Antoni said. “If we can’t, then they’ve imposed their will better than we’ve imposed ours.”
‘We are who we are. We got here, 65 wins, so at the end of the day, I think we’re going to be who we are.’ — CHRIS PAUL