Mike D’Antoni couldn’t even let the question finish before cracking a joke.
“Was there any talk? I didn’t hear it.”
The Houston Rockets head coach was being asked about whether iso-ball as an identity could work against the Golden State Warriors. It was all the rage in the two days following the Game 1 loss, but Houston responded with a 127-105 drubbing on Wednesday. Oh, right. Why was anyone complaining about an identity when it led to a 22-point win?
“I don’t want to be cantankerous,” D’Antoni said. “But, again, we are who we are, and we had to be who we are. We just did it better, longer. Guys believe it, and we’re not going to change anything up. That would be silly on my part to panic. You don’t do that. We’re very comfortable about who we are, and we can beat anybody, anywhere, at any time, playing the way we play.”
Then, one more joke: “Some people might not like it, you know? Hey, sorry!”
Even with four days until Sunday’s Game 3, there won’t be any debate about Golden State’s identity now that they too lost a game by double figures. They’ve won two championships in three years, sent four players to the all-star team the past two seasons, and coasted through two opening-round series. Could you imagine questioning their ethos? That would be foolish.
“It just wasn’t our night,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “We didn’t play with enough energy and force and poise.”
Golden State will play differently in Game 3, with new wrinkles to attack, and perhaps a different key to emphasize headed into the game, depending on what Kerr and the coaching staff sees.
“We’ll look at the film, obviously, to figure out where the kinks in the armor were,” Curry said.
But don’t conflate adjustments with a crisis in a team’s style. This is precisely what happened to the Rockets between the two matchups. The notion that a 65-win team was suddenly going to behave differently because they got beaten once was silly. Besides a stray Eric Gordon comment, there was no indication of that at all.
Houston’s adjustments weren’t complicated: they were forecasted clearly by D’Antoni in the day before the game. Their tempo had sagged badly in Game 1, something that had happened down the stretch of the regular season but was much more survivable then. Against Golden State, the Rockets needed to push more — to create transition looks, to facilitate early offense, to keep running isolations but not exclusively in the lower third of the shot clock.
The Rockets are no different than the entire league — they’re best in the first six seconds of the shot clock, second-most efficient in the next six seconds, and third-most in the next six. D’Antoni is happy to let Chris Paul and James Harden play at their leisurely pace against less threatening teams — they were No. 24 in possessions per game after the all-star break — but more urgency is required against their toughest challenge all year.
“We just played at a better pace,” Paul said. “A lot of that helped, too, that we got stops. We defended better. We got out in transition. We still played our isos and stuff when we had them, and we just played with a little more thrust.”
Yes, that defense was crucial too, something D’Antoni echoed: “You guys can write the whole article in one sentence, that’s it: we got into people.”
But for the last time: Houston defended teams all season, finishing sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions. They were 11th in possessions per game before the all-star break hit, back before their spot atop the Western Conference had been comfortably secured. They isolated teams all year, having what was likely the best isolation scoring season from any team ever. Their pedigree isn’t Golden State’s, with the championships and multiple seasons of success, but it’s still quite strong.
It’s fair to say the Rockets leaned too much into the wrong parts of their identity in Game 1. It’s fair to believe that their identity is ultimately not enough to beat the Warriors. It’s definitely fair to think that no one is beating the Warriors, no matter what type of basketball they play.
But if there’s no identity crisis in Golden State in the coming days, then there shouldn’t have bene one in Houston, either. These two teams will lean into what they do best, and the one that does it better will win.
“We are who we are, and we had to be who we are,” D’Antoni said.
We’ll see if it’s enough.