After the home loss to the Pacers on Monday night, normally even tempered and often relaxed Mike D’Antoni ripped into his team calling them soft, which, on the face of it, considering the messenger, seemed out of place. Toughness has never been what D’Antoni teams have been about, particularly physical toughness. But perhaps, D’Antoni wasn’t being obvious. Maybe it wasn’t physical toughness he was alluding to but mental toughness. Not being lazy. Playing hard. Developing a killer instinct. Not being satisfied. Those are mental characteristics and it doesn’t matter if you take 50 threes or 50 dribble drive dunks.
This part of the season, the last stretch before the playoffs, is when the pressure builds and no one has more pressure on him than Mike D’Antoni. He came into the season with his reputation preceding him, having failed in glamour markets with skilled superstars. The Rockets presented him not just a do-over but redemption, if he could make it work. And it has. Or it had until 2017. It has either been feast or famine for the Rockets in the new year. Scoring 120 points or giving up 120 points, it is either or. The Lou Williams acquisition was a boost of energy, Lou can score from anywhere, and more offense doesn’t hurt, but the grind it out mentality that is a key component to playoff success has been missing since the new year began.
Since January 11th the Rockets have lost 10 games. They have won 11 games. That is not the recipe for being a contender and D’Antoni who has led a team to 60 wins twice knows this.
“It was like five or six straight plays of being soft. Soft on getting back on defense, soft on rebounding and getting an outlet pass, just soft. We’ve just got to have a little more fight. There’s just not enough fight out there. There’s just not enough” (ESPN, Calvin Watkins)
In this particular game against the Pacers, D’Antoni was referring to physical toughness and mental toughness. The Pacers punked the Rockets on the boards, outrebounding them by 16. They also lost the mental battle, up by 17 points and losing the game. Not taking care of the glass is a continuing problem for the Rockets who lack a traditional power forward and center. Furthermore, the Rockets, who take the most threes in the league, missed most of them. What do they do when their threes are not falling. How do they win?
This is true too. Since the beginning of January, when the Rockets shot under 30% from the three point line, they are 1-6. They have lost six straight times when their three ball has failed them.
Daryl Morey, if he is worried, isn’t letting on. It is three point ecstasy or bust as far as Morey is concerned. As pessimistic as D’Antoni was after the Pacers loss, Morey is positive as he surveys his team and looks at all the perimeter scorers.
The Rockets are focused on how to dethrone the Warriors and Morey thinks it has to do with the Rockets ability to make threes. But the elephant in the room is efficiency. What if in a series with the Warriors their three ball isn’t going and they are not rebounding. What then?
Playoff basketball is about paying attention to details. The three ball is one of those details but not the only one. Still, Morey is fixated on the threes, his magic formula. He feels very good about his team and isn’t one to call them soft.
“We absolutely figured the way we’re going to beat ’em [Warriors] is with a barrage of 3-pointers, and it’s probably going to be a 124-120 affair if we’re going to get past them.”
With this as his moral imperative, Lou Williams fell into the Rockets lap. The only reason Morey had any interest level in Williams was the ability Lou has to drain perimeter buckets and get to the line. Lou is very crafty with the ball.
“Now in our rotation, every player on the floor, except for obviously the 5, is able to shoot the 3-point shot well and attack the basket well.” (Daryl Morey)
But does the inclusion of Williams make the team more potent and softer? Or, as Harden put it, lacking “heart”? Turnovers, ball movement, rebounding, mental toughness will be just as important as draining threes. A gifted shooting team like the Warriors can also defend the three. They suppress their opponent from the perimeter. That is toughness too, that is not being soft.
Two men (Morey and D’Antoni) with complimentary but different perspectives on how success is achieved are on the same quest for redemption. Morey looks at the season as a shooting contest; keep shooting, eventually they will fall. D’Antoni looks at it as a toughness contest; keep fighting, your heart will decide who wins.
photo via llananba