Rock­ets

Austin American-Statesman - - NBA PLAYOFFS -

Prod­ucts of their era

Chris Paul, 32, has been in the league since 2005 and should end up in the Bas­ket­ball Hall of Fame. But as the NBA’s real sea­son be­gins again, he’s yet to reach the con­fer­ence fi­nals, let alone grasp a shin­ing, golden Larry O’Brien cham­pi­onship tro­phy with his hands.

James Har­den, 28, just un­leashed the great­est reg­u­lar sea­son of his nine-year ca­reer, is the ex­pected MVP, and is more of a leader and team player than ever be­fore. He’s only been to the con­fer­ence fi­nals once with the Rock­ets — when Dwight Howard and Kevin McHale were in red — has been knocked out in the first round three times, and our last post­sea­son im­age of The Beard was the in­sult to Hous­ton a/k/a 114-75 San An­to­nio (with­out Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) in Game 6 of the Western Con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals last sea­son at a boofilled Toy­ota Cen­ter.

In some ways, the 66-yearold Mike D’An­toni has had it rougher than his mostly bril­liant guards. Two con­fer­ence fi­nals with Phoenix more than a decade ago, but noth­ing fur­ther than the se­cond round since. And the Rock­ets’ semi­fi­nals col­lapse against the Spurs last sea­son brought back all the bad, old play­off mem­o­ries, with D’An­toni ul­ti­mately out­coached and out­ma­neu­vered by five­time champ Gregg Popovich.

But for Paul, Har­den and D’An­toni in the spring of 2018, all that is in the past. History can’t be changed. Their bas­ket­ball sto­ries would for­ever be al­tered, though, by cap­tur­ing a cham­pi­onship dur­ing the era of su­perteams and 3s.

Four­teen-year vet­eran Trevor Ariza won a ti­tle in 2009 with the Kobe Bryant and Phil Jack­son Lak­ers, who won 65 reg­u­lar-sea­son games, just like the 2017-18 Rock­ets.

Some of the NBA’s great­est names had to fail in the fire mul­ti­ple times be­fore they could emerge vic­to­ri­ous on the other side. Is this the path Har­den has been on all these years?

“History al­ways re­peats it­self, in a sense. This is (Har­den’s) road. This is his story that he has to tell or to write,” said Ariza, who’s one of the few Rock­ets re­main­ing from the team’s 2015 Western Con­fer­ence fi­nals loss to the War­riors. “It’s all com­ing to­gether for him. This is his test. So the rest of it’s yet to be seen, but I know it’s not go­ing to come from lack of work or lack of want. Be­cause we, as well as he — he wants this, too. Just time will tell.”

The con­stant cham­pi­onship talk — ideal for TV sound bites and in­ter­net clicks — can be overblown. It’s a time of in­ter­na­tion­ally loved mega-mil­lion­aires. The NBA’s su­per­stars pos­sess more brand­ing and buy­ing power than ever be­fore, and Du­rant won it all for the first time last sea­son by tak­ing his tal­ents to The Bay. How much does a ring re­ally mean when you can win one just by join­ing an al­ready­loaded team?

We know that ti­tles — pos­sess­ing or lack­ing — end all debates. LeBron James can have any­thing in the world, but The King still bows to Michael Jor­dan’s six. The an­nual pur­suit of rings also cre­ated the league’s topheavy su­perteam era, which just pro­duced a sea­son that fea­tured al­most one-third of the league tank­ing, and treats an 82-game sea­son like a soft run for a two-month post­sea­son tour­na­ment.

Play­off cru­cible

Prove it in the playoffs. Prove it in the playoffs. Prove it in the playoffs.

We heard those words about Har­den and his Rock­ets as soon as they started scorch­ing way back in Oc­to­ber. With 14-, 17- and 11-game win­ning streaks in the rearview mir­ror, they have ev­ery­thing to prove and their real test — the one we’ll re­mem­ber — is just be­gin­ning.

Do the playoffs truly de­fine in­di­vid­ual lega­cies?

“I agree to a cer­tain point, but only to a cer­tain point,” D’An­toni said.

“There’s some great players that haven’t won a lot of cham­pi­onships. I was prob­a­bly the big­gest Jerry West fan ever and we lost like 10 Fi­nals in a row. So I didn’t think that di­min­ished what — he’s still The Logo. And he should be.

“So to a cer­tain ex­tent, I get it. But it’s also a team win. It’s not just an in­di­vid­ual win. When the team’s bet­ter ...they win. It’s hard to say one player causes them to win.”

That’s the thing about these Rock­ets. A team con­structed and re­con­structed by gen­eral man­ager Daryl Morey gives Har­den, Paul and D’An­toni their best shot to im­me­di­ately al­ter all their in­di­vid­ual sto­ries.

Time in the spotlight

Har­den, one of the game’s great­est mod­ern scor­ers and the face of a fran­chise, could rise above Du­rant and West­brook in these playoffs.

Paul, one of the best point guards of all time, can end the an­nual can’t-fin­ish-inthe-playoffs re­minder.

D’An­toni could win his first ring the sea­son af­ter win­ning Coach of the Year, all while pre­vent­ing The King and the War­riors from claim­ing an­other ti­tle.

This two-month tour­na­ment can make and re­shape lega­cies.

“This is where mem­o­ries are made, mo­ments are made . ... And we’ve got an op­por­tu­nity to do that,” Paul said.

This is the time when world champions write their own sto­ries.

DAVID J. PHILLIP / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

James Har­den and Chris Paul have the op­por­tu­nity to wipe away past play­off fail­ures by win­ning a cham­pi­onship.

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