Heading into Game One of the West Finals, fans had ample reason to believe it would be a humdinger and indicative of how tightly fought the entire series would be. After all, the Rockets boasted of the league’s best record, with a formidable roster that general manager Daryl Morey assembled precisely to take the measure of the Warriors. Led by presumptive Most Valuable Player James Harden and point god Chris Paul, it appeared to have the talent level and collective skill set it required to upend the defending champions.
As things turned out, the Rockets did, indeed, prove to all and sundry that it could stand toe to toe with the Warriors — for a half. In battling their rivals to a standstill in the first 24 minutes of the match, they could not have played better; Harden was, in particular, schooling every defender in his way, and particularly when fellow All-Star Steph Curry was all that stood between him and a bucket or a dime. After the break, though, they wound up in the same position as just about the rest of the league in the face of an inevitable burst of offensive prowess: staring at the backsides of the blue and yellow and struggling to keep pace.
In retrospect, TNT analysts Reggie Miller and Chris Webber were right to underscore the fundamental difference between the protagonists. The Warriors invariably rely on crisp passing to generate points, hence their remarkable status as the league’s assist kings through the last four years. Meanwhile, the Rockets prefer to go the isolation-heavy route, relying on Harden and, to a lesser extent, Paul to directly exploit mismatches and involve those around them whenever practicable.
That said, Miller and Webber miss the point. One system is not intrinsically better than the other, and the fact that the Warriors and the Rockets go their own separate ways speaks as much of the predilections of head coaches Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni as of the strengths of their charges. In any case, the outcome cannot be denied. One contest is all it took for the truth to come out. If the status quo continues, the best-of-seven affair will not be as close as armchair pundits initially believed.
Needless to say, the onus is on D’Antoni to make adjustments for tomorrow’s battle. And, yes, the pressure is on; another loss at the Toyota Center will be catastrophic against the Warriors, formidable under any circumstance and — the monumental meltdown in the 2016 Finals notwithstanding — especially imposing as front runners. Certainly, the Rockets will have to change their mind-set; yesterday, they were caught flat-footed in too many instances.
If the Rockets want a puncher’s chance to meet their objectives, they need to assume nothing is a given, and fast; they’ll have to show maximum effort from opening tip to final buzzer. In short, they’ll have to be like the Warriors — expecting the worst and acting accordingly. Otherwise, they would do well to prepare themselves for a long summer ruminating on the What Ifs and Could Have Beens.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.