NBA Saturday: Rockets Back on Track Under D’Antoni

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The Houston Rockets have been one of the most surprising teams so far this season. They currently have a 20-7 record, which puts them fourth in the Western Conference playoff race, and they’ve won nine of their last 10 games. This is a big turnaround for a team that finished last season with a 41-41 record, was plagued by poor chemistry all season and barely squeezed into the playoffs as the eighth seed. James Harden and Dwight Howard never really saw eye-to-eye and the team failed to live up to expectations as a result.

“That’s going to happen,” former Rockets guard Jason Terry said after last season regarding distractions. “I’ve been around this thing a long time. You will be faced with all types of adversities and how you come through those is a sign of the type of team you have. Our team was just not strong enough mentally to get through those adversities and learn.

“We just didn’t have the chemistry needed,” Terry added. “It’s one thing to put the pieces together on paper, but it has to be a tight-knit bond with a group of guys to do something special, and our group just didn’t have that [last] year.”

We aren’t hearing quotes like this from the Rockets this season and it’s not hard to understand why. The Rockets hired Mike D’Antoni over the offseason to take over as the team’s head coach. D’Antoni ushered in the pace-and-space era in the mid-2000s as the head coach of Phoenix Suns. Those Phoenix teams were encouraged to take shots within the first seven seconds of the shot clock, to take a ton of three-pointers and to share the ball and create a lot of ball movement. It was a system that played to the strengths of players like Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire and benefited the role players who were asked to simply knock down open three-pointers, move the ball and hustle in transition among other things.

After failing to recreate this offensive magic with the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, D’Antoni has finally landed with a team that has the right personnel and talent to implement and execute his offensive philosophies. As a result, the team is playing to its strengths and each player is being given the chance to contribute and play a meaningful role.

“I mean, that’s how we’ve been playing the whole year,” Patrick Beverley said recently to Maurice Bobb of Bleacher Report. “Like I said, it’s a big pie and everybody gets a little piece of it. When you play that way, you go home, everybody is happy. Man, it’s a great atmosphere to be around. So at last we’re having fun through the ups and the downs. It’s a great group of guys to be around. We share the wealth and from that everybody gets a little piece of the pie.”

Early on, D’Antoni pegged Harden as his point guard and that experiment has been a rousing success so far. Harden is averaging 27.7 points, 11.8 assists, eight rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting 44.1 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range. Harden has thrived as the team’s unquestioned facilitator, routinely penetrating defenses and kicking the ball out to open shooters or lobbing the ball to his big men who roll to the rim.

“It starts with James,” said Sam Dekker. “He moves the ball so well. He finds us when we’re cutting, then it just trickles down. And when everyone’s getting along and playing with that chemistry, we’re really hard to stop.”

Houston’s offense isn’t just about running in transition and firing pull-up three-pointers. It is designed specifically to play to certain players’ strengths and to maximize the team’s efficiency. Harden’s ability to get into the painted area, post-up smaller defenders, draw fouls or create space for himself makes him an offensive threat unlike any other in the NBA. With the ball in Harden’s hands, he is given the freedom and control to determine how to generate efficient offensive opportunities. In that role, Harden has thrived this season. Most importantly, with the brightest green light possible, Harden’s teammates have stepped up and held up their end of the bargain by knocking down shots and working off of his playmaking ability.

“Coach D’Antoni’s philosophy offensively is different from a lot of teams,” Beverley said. “He set the foundation of a new breed of basketball. We don’t go out and try to take a particular number. It’s how it works out. We shoot open threes. We shoot them fast. We’re confident. The coaching staff is confident on our abilities.”

“This team has ultimate freedom to shoot the shots they want to shoot,” Harden said. “It gives us huge confidence. I think each and every individual knows what’s a good shot and what’s a bad shot. That’s the good part about our team—there’s no leash. If you’re open, shoot the basketball. If you don’t shoot it, it’s a bad shot. So for us, we shoot our open shots, we play well, we share the ball and we compete at a high level.”

On Friday night, the Rockets set several NBA records. They set a new record for three-pointers attempted in a half (31), three-pointers attempted in a game (61) and total three-pointers made in a single game (24). The three-pointer is a fixture in Houston’s offense, as it is for just about every team at this point, and so far it is paying off for the Rockets.

Credit for that should be given, at least in part, to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who took a chance on injury-prone sharpshooters Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson last offseason. Having so many shooters around Harden has created a pick-your-poison scenario for opposing defenses – either try to shut down Harden by sending multiple defenders at him and leave shooters open beyond the arc, or play Harden with one defender and hope he doesn’t torch you. This offensive dynamic has propelled the Rockets to third in the league in offensive efficiency, placing them just behind the historically great offenses from the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors.

The downside is that Houston’s defense is only about league-average at this point and it’s unlikely they can improve much on that moving forward. This is a team that is designed to score a lot of points, not to lock down opposing teams each and every night. However, with guys like Gordon and Anderson finding their grooves this season, supporting players like Trevor Ariza and Beverley sticking to and executing their specific roles, Clint Capela improving significantly on both ends of the court and Harden playing at an MVP-level, the Rockets are a serious threat in the Western Conference.

The Rockets are still facing an uphill battle when it comes to the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and arguably the Los Angeles Clippers. But they are performing at a level that few expected. A lot of that credit has to go to D’Antoni, who has put his players in positions to be successful and who has created a structure that allows every player to feel as though they are an important part of the team’s success.