Mike D’Antoni’s innovation will lead Rockets to Western Conference Finals

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Let’s rewind the clock for a minute. The year is 2004. Every song on the radio is either an Usher single or a track featuring — you guessed it — Usher. It’s the first season for Mike D’Antoni as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. And while countless oral histories and even a book would eventually be written about the Seven Seconds or Less era in Phoenix, much of the talk gets caught up in the speed of those Suns teams.

Really, they were all about the 3-point line.

In a league which hadn’t yet caught on to the devastating analytical shift when it came to the 3-point shot, D’Antoni and his staff built a team around scoring from beyond the arc, and quickly. Remember, this is 2004. Stephen Curry just got his driver’s license. “Borat” won’t come out for another two years. Kevin Federline is on the front of magazines. It’s a completely different era.

While their flash of scoring took us by storm, but the Suns scoring from deep is what left a lasting impression on the NBA. During each of his four seasons in Phoenix, D’Antoni’s teams were first in 3-point percentage. They were no lower than fifth in attempts each of those years. What D’Antoni did was set off a chain reaction that is still being felt today, 14 years later. Just look at the NBA in 2018. How many teams do you see today running the break — complete with a thousand drag screens and secondary screens — as their primary offense?

How many do you see shooting 3-pointers at a pace that would make even George Mikan faint?

Right.

D’Antoni was and always has been an innovator. Those Suns teams left an indelible mark on the NBA. But when it came to D’Antoni, the narrative was that Phoenix was an incomplete idea. For all the rosy talk of the SSOL era, at the time it was lambasted as being too gimmicky — all offense and no defense, and because of Robert Horry, an untenable way to win a championship. The tongue-clicking followed D’Antoni after stints with both the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe some felt as though the NBA had taken his idea and ran with it, advancing it far past the capabilities of the West Virginia native.

Boy, was that wrong.

D’Antoni is now at the helm of the Houston Rockets, the team sitting atop the Western Conference playoffs and ready to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves. On the precipice of innovation yet again, D’Antoni is a Coach of the Year candidate after mashing two future hall of famers in Chris Paul and James Harden together to form a potent offensive and defensive squad.

Starting the season, many felt both would need the ball too much for the experiment to work. Last year in Houston, the Rockets were the subject of some revelation when Harden made the switch to point guard full-time. Without Blake Griffin or a similar-passing big man to run his “get” action with, Paul’s off-ball movement would be restricted. It just didn’t seem to fit.

Now, of course, we all have egg on our faces. D’Antoni’s adjustments have gone beyond intermingling Harden and Paul at the two guard positions. The team staggers their minutes in a way that’s a nightmare for opposing teams, and D’Antoni doesn’t force either of them to play in each other’s style. Meanwhile, the pick-and-roll action with Clint Capela is devastating, and in both secondary transition and the halfcourt, D’Antoni’s sets to get shooters open like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Trevor Ariza.

It’s that dynamism that has given Houston the edge over their opponents, even if there are some naysayers about their vaunted top-6 defensive rating. The Rockets’ biggest hurdle at this point, especially as they look ahead to the second round and beyond, is the status of Luc Mbah a Moute and Ryan Anderson. Houston’s quick-switching defense is going to miss the versatile wing in Mbah a Moute, who guards four of five positions consistently. Anderson’s shooting will be missed, especially against a squad that defends the 3-point line well in the Timberwolves.

Yes, losing Mbah a Moute is a huge blow to Houston’s chances to get to the NBA Finals. In fact, it’s one of the worst things that could happen to them when viewed in the context of the Golden State Warriors slowly gaining their health. But if we’re going to take the last decade-and-a-half seriously, and consider just how much adaptation and shaping of modern NBA strategy D’Antoni has done, it’s still going to be hard to bet against him.

The Timberwolves just barely scraped their way into the playoffs, and if Houstan can get past Jimmy Butler & Co. it has a real shot at playing either the Utah Jazz, who they swept this year, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, who Harden harbors an unshakable grudge against.

In fact, if Mbah a Moute really is out for up to four weeks, and if Anderson’s ankle continues to nag him, how D’Antoni guides the Rockets toward the Western Conference Finals might be one of the best storylines of his career. There’s serendipity in the father of the modern NBA offense bursting past the competition, swapping rotations and adding wrinkles you didn’t see coming, all with a fully-realized version of what he started some 14 years ago.

Hopefully this time nobody body checks one of D’Antoni’s star point guards into the scorer’s table. At least this time, he’s got two of them.

Three things to know: Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

Luka Doncic vs. Stephen Curry.

The schedule makers gave us a showdown of early-season MVP candidates but also two guys who have had to carry a massive load this season, waiting for their teams to come together around them. Curry has gotten more of that lately as Klay Thompson has started to find his legs and some rotation shifts have improved play off the bench.

Luka is still on a Brunson-sized island waiting for help. Tuesday night that island got smaller when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of the Warriors’ Jordan Poole.

That just meant more Doncic, and he reminded everyone why nobody wants to play the Mavericks in the playoffs with a 41-point triple-double (12 rebounds, 12 assists).

Doncic was a force of nature, although Curry had his chance in the final 10 seconds but got called for traveling (a call the Warriors disputed).

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas, but this was the Luka Doncic show.

Doncic has been asked to carry a massive load for Dallas this season. He has a usage rate of 38 through the first quarter of the season, a number that would rank in the top-10 all time (right around 1987 Michael Jordan and 2006 Kobe Bryant).

How long can Doncic do this without starting to wear down? Without risking injury? Sure those other players like Jordan and Kobe got through the entire season, but they also didn’t make the kind of playoff runs Dallas is hoping for. Coming off EuroBasket, Doncic entered this season in the best shape he has ever been in to tip-off an NBA campaign, but there have already been stretches where he has started to look worn down. Then there are nights like Tuesday when he carries the Mavericks to a win and looks unstoppable.

Doncic is young, but asking him to carry this load also puts a ceiling on how good this team can be. Curry is getting that help. Giannis Antetokounmpo is also putting up historic usage percentage numbers this season, but Khris Middleton will return to the Bucks and take on some of that load. The Mavericks touted Christian Wood as an answer, but he is coming off the bench and his defense does not have him in Jason Kidd’s good graces. It’s a one-man show more than ever in Dallas.

If the Mavs want to win in the postseason, it can’t just be the Luka show. But during the regular season, some nights that is enough. At least until he wears down.

2) Damian Lillard to return Sunday, not soon enough for Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard (calf strain, his second this season) — they are 1-4 in the current five-game stretch without him, playing their worst defense of the season. The latest of those losses — a come-from-ahead loss to a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George — was maybe the team’s worst loss of the season. Anfernee Simons put up 37, the Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, and yet they collapsed against a team whose best offensive weapon was Nicholas Batum (32 points).

The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is due back on Sunday, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

If you didn’t watch the late game on TNT, you missed a battle of two teams trying to keep their heads above water while their star (or stars) sit out injured.

Portland is still 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week. What was ugly about Tuesday’s loss was the team just let go of the rope. This was a winnable game, but when it got tight they let go.

Powell scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and took over to get the 13-9 Clippers another win.

Los Angeles has done it against a soft schedule, but they keep finding ways to win until their stars return. Nobody is sure how good this team ultimately can be, but Tyronn Lue has got his squad defending and finding ways to win until everyone does get right. It’s an impressive coaching job.

3) Karl-Anthony Towns out weeks with calf strain (likely more than a month)

The MRI is in and Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports Towns likely will miss 4-6 weeks.

Not good, but it looked a lot worse when it happened.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his stats are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

The Timberwolves are not off to the start they thought they would be, and if they don’t figure out a way to win without Towns the next month this season could get sideways on them.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavs still win behind Doncic 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).