So the demise of the Houston Rockets after but a single game of this Western Conference finals was greatly exaggerated after all.
After such a lifeless performance in a double-digit loss to defending NBA champion Golden State in the opening game of this series Monday night, Houston showed it does indeed still have a pulse.
And even better a backbone.
The Rockets came roaring back to life Wednesday night with one of their most complete and thoroughly solid performances of this post-season from beginning to end. They took the game to the Warriors from the outset and never relented until Steve Kerr eventually lifted his starters in white-flag concession with five minutes to play.
Houston likes to play hero ball, but shared the ball with 23 assists on its 45 makes this time and relied on people besides stars James Harden and Chris Paul. Golden State threw ill-advised passes and had the ball stolen with 10 first-half turnovers after committing just nine in Game 1. It was a very un-Warriors-like game.
Consider this: Rockets rugged defender P.J. Tucker scored more points than Steph Curry.
“We got what we deserved,” Kerr said. “They kicked our butts. No other way to say it.”
Houston evened this series at a game apiece in a style that has been uniquely its own for much of this franchise-best 65-win regular season. The Rockets played like the No. 1 seed in the West that they are and trounced the almost untrounceable Warriors 127-105.
Now they just have to do it three more times, starting Sunday with Game 3 on the road. But they proved they’re good enough when they play with a sense of urgency and purpose.
They won with balanced scoring, a gameplan that didn’t consist of the ball being super-glued to Harden’s hands, a stronger emphasis on defense against anyone not named Kevin Durant (38 points) and a commitment to run after only three fast-break points Monday.
But head coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t reinvent the wheel or a new offense, for that matter, that he sprung on the unsuspecting Warriors. No, the bomb-launching Rockets still characteristically took 42 threes and played up-tempo, hit-the-open-man behind the line with Tucker, the former Texas power forward, frequently qualifying as that open man.
“We just did it better, longer,” D’Antoni said. “We’re not going to change anything up. That would be silly on my part to panic. Some people might not like it, you know? Hey, sorry. It might not look good to some people. But it’s effective.”
It looked pretty good to most of the sellout crowd of 18,119 at Toyota Center.
The Rockets still played their typical isolation ball behind their two-headed All-Star backcourt, but they got into their action much sooner than Game 1 when those two kept the ball until the shot clock almost expired and several times beyond.
And on this night when they played smarter, they located either Tucker or sixth-man savant Eric Gordon from long range; those two teamed up to drain 11 of Houston’s 16 three-pointers. Those two missed just four of 15 attempts behind the line. Curry, meanwhile, hit just one trey.
As for the isolation plays from a team that led the league in that category, those were still present. One poor soul had even counted up Harden’s dribbles in the first game and calculated the 550 times he put the ball on the floor were more than the Warriors’ top three stars did combined.
They made precious few adjustments, they insisted, but relied for a good time on a very small lineup with 6-5 Tucker playing center to cope with the athletic, free-wheeling Warriors, especially in the second quarter when Houston built a commanding lead it never totally relinquished. “I love that lineup,” said Tucker, who scored a playoff career-high 22 points to accompany Gordon’s 27.
So this is who the high-octane Rockets are when they make good decisions, quick defensive rotations and ultimately lots of shots, and they’ll head West with a strong dose of momentum and confidence. Of course, Paul says the team never doubted itself.
Asked if Game 2 was viewed as a last-stand game with the season hanging in the balance, Paul scoffed and said, “You lose Game 1 and everybody says it’s a must win. We don’t mind playing on the road.”
It almost certainly was a must win, moreso considering Golden State has won 15 straight games at home and has stolen home-court advantage. For sure, both teams will be completely rested with three days off until Sunday’s Game 3 in Oakland.
Kerr wasn’t in any mood to latch onto excuses. He credited the Rockets’ gameplan, their discipline, their improved defensive intensity and lost the game but not his sense of humor. When someone asked how much of Curry’s two sub-par games in this series and 2-of-13 shooting from the arc could be attributed to lingering effects from his sprained knee, Kerr blinked and finally responded, “13.7 percent.”
He then apologized for being sarcastic. But it’s distinctly possible that this compelling matchup figures to be 100 percent more intriguing than it seemed after Game 1.