HOUSTON — If you love scoring, it's hard not to love the Houston Rockets, a whirring, purring, lethally efficient basketball turbine.
This scoring wizardry propelled the Rockets to the NBA's best record and now to the Western Conference Finals, where they will meet the equally potent Golden State Warriors in an epic shooting extravaganza that might set record books ablaze.
And yet this Rockets offense, dominated as it is by Harden's heavy dribbling and Paul's tedious probing—along with Harden's perpetual trips to the foul line—is not universally adored. They plod and they grind, lulling defenders into a stupor while teammates stand and watch—a play known in basketball parlance as an isolation.
For the Rockets, it's highly effective. But all that probing and plodding can look ghastly to the purist who favors brisk tempo and slick ball movement. "When I turn the channels, I like to watch guys get up and down," said one such soul, who later proclaimed this style to be "the way that I have always thought the game should be played."
Those statements came from D'Antoni, circa 2005-06, when his hair was browner, his cheekbones more angular and his upper lip covered by a bushy, Pringles logo-style mustache.
Back then, D'Antoni was a basketball revolutionary—a stubbornly devout believer in small lineups, three-point shooting, fluid passing and frantic pace. "Run," he'd command his Phoenix Suns. And if running failed, he'd say to run faster, to launch shots before any defense could get set—a mindset that became a mantra and then a book title: Seven Seconds or Less.
"We're so much more effective when we shoot within the first seven seconds of the shot clock," the Phoenix version of D'Antoni once said.
To which the Houston D'Antoni—grayer, clean shaven and maybe a little softer—can only respond with a chuckle.
"It became about 16 [seconds] or less," he says between playoff games against the Utah Jazz.
The Rockets this season ranked just 14th in pace and No. 1 in isolation plays—the clock-chewing, nerve-numbing style D'Antoni once derided. And he's fully at peace with this new reality. Which is perhaps understandable, given the results.
Houston won 65 games this season, with an offense that ranked among the most efficient in history. Harden—jab steps, ball pounding and all—is the overwhelming favorite to win Most Valuable Player. These Rockets might just be good enough to end the Warriors' three-year reign in the West.
What's a coach not to like?
And yet, Phoenix D'Antoni would surely raise his brownish eyebrows if he peered into the future to see Houston D'Antoni winning this way.
"Oh no. I would be surprised that I'm coaching like this," D'Antoni concedes. "But I think that's the brilliance of our players."
Meaning: Harden and Paul, who for all their stylistic differences might be the two best isolation guards in the NBA. If D'Antoni has adapted, if the revolutionary has gone evolutionary in this late stage of his coaching career, it's because his twin point guards essentially demand it. They're simply too good at what they do for D'Antoni to say otherwise.
"We got the best iso guy in the world," he says of Harden. "And that's why we do it."
"I think every point guard plays at their comfort level, where they're most effective," he says, "and we just mold everything around that."
So much has changed since D'Antoni and Steve Nash made magic in the desert over a decade ago. The game, for one. And to an extent, D'Antoni himself.
When D'Antoni took the Suns' helm in December 2003, the NBA was just starting to ease out of the hero-ball era—when singular offensive talents like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury dominated the game through clearouts and mesmerizing one-on-one moves.
Rule changes intended to encourage ball and player movement—and to discourage isolations—were just starting to make an impact. Big men like Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan still ruled the paint, big lineups were still in vogue and teams generally played at a methodical pace. The three-pointer was still viewed as a low-percentage play, a last resort—not a preferred scoring method. The analytics movement, then in its infancy, had not yet taken hold.
The D'Antoni of the mid-2000s was not only a rebel but also an evangelist, preaching the benefits of smaller lineups, faster play and deeper shots to a mostly skeptical public. The high-scoring Suns were dazzling, the most entertaining team of the era, but they were often dismissed as a novelty act without staying power—an impression calcified by their defeats in the Western Conference Finals in 2005 and 2006, and their repeated failures against the bigger, more conventional San Antonio Spurs.
Every failure became a referendum on D'Antoni's system and the coach himself. The more critics carped that small ball couldn't win, the more D'Antoni dug his heels in. At some point, his offensive system became a cause as much as a philosophy. He wanted to win to prove he was right.
That stubborn edge accompanied D'Antoni to New York, where he lost a battle of wills with Carmelo Anthony, and later to Los Angeles, where he lost a battle of wills with Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. At each stop, D'Antoni tried in vain to re-create the magic he found in Phoenix, only to be stymied by headstrong superstars who either didn't fit his system or didn't want to.
"Unfortunately, in both situations, in New York and in Los Angeles, there were competing [factions] from within the organizations," says Laurel D'Antoni, the coach's wife and daily sounding board.
Laurel, who has been with Mike since his playing days in Italy, long ago internalized her husband's run-and-gun, share-the-wealth basketball aesthetic. "I hate iso," she's said often, including in a recent Lee Jenkins Sports Illustrated story.
But her view is also evolving—thanks to Houston's breakthrough season and out of deference to Harden's unique brand of scoring genius.
"He's just morphed because of his players," Laurel says of Mike. "My husband is in looove with James Harden. I mean, I would like to have a little bit of that love that he's giving James Harden in my household. But I understand why. Because Mike said he's the best offensive player he's ever, ever, ever coached."
Indeed, Mike D'Antoni flatly declares Harden is "probably the best offensive player of all time."
If D'Antoni has lost a little of that rebellious edge over the years, perhaps it's because there's nothing left to rebel against. Small ball and three-point shooting are now the norm, and the entire league plays at a much higher pace than it did in 2005. Any waning skepticism of the D'Antoni playbook was crushed in 2015, when the Warriors won the championship with three-point shooting and small lineups.
So Houston D'Antoni doesn't carry the burdens Phoenix D'Antoni once did. He doesn't need to prove anything. He just needs to win, even if it means bending to the skills of his current stars. Which, Nash says, is not so different from what D'Antoni did back in Phoenix—maximizing the gifts of Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion.
"I think it's just Mike's ability to read his team, the evolution of the game, the pieces that he has and how they fit together," Nash says. "So in some ways, I'm not surprised. That's part of Mike's brilliance, is his ability to adapt and adjust and tweak, according to who he has and how the pieces fit together."
Nash adds, "I think Mike at this point just wants to win. I don't think he really cares too much about the past."
In truth, the essentials of D'Antoni's cherished system remain intact: the steady stream of pick-and-rolls, the spread floor with shooters in the corners. Houston broke the NBA record for three-point attempts in each of the last two seasons.
"Similar," says Rockets swingman Joe Johnson, who also played for D'Antoni's Suns, "but totally different."
What's changed is the delivery method. Where Nash sped up the court, ran a quick pick-and-roll and fired to open shooters, Harden hunts mismatches and then dribbles his defender into a stupor.
"Pushing the tempo is what this team is best at," Johnson says. "But James is so good at getting fouls that he causes a lot of trouble for defenders and teams trying to guard him."
It all sounds straightforward and pragmatic, but the D'Antoni of yesteryear was much more wedded to his system of pace and space and beautiful ball movement.
"Very rigid—until he got Harden," says former Suns assistant coach Alvin Gentry, chuckling at the sudden change. "And then he got Chris Paul."
Gentry is now coaching the New Orleans Pelicans, playing a wide-open style that probably looks closer to D'Antoni-ball than D'Antoni's current team.
"If you're asking me what he would rather do," Gentry says of his old boss, "he would rather be running up and down the court and spreading the court and doing a lot of things like that." He adds, "I think he sees that as basketball."
The stylistic shift was sudden and unplanned. The Rockets ranked third in pace last season, D'Antoni's first in Houston. But Paul's arrival last summer changed the dynamic. So did a leaguewide shift in defensive philosophy.
In the past, teams mostly relied on two defenders to guard the pick-and-roll—so a player like Nash could always find a seam or an open teammate. Today, in a three-point-happy league, teams are increasingly switching defenders to avoid leaving shooters open. That means Harden (or Paul) is often operating one-on-one against a slower defender. Both feast on those mismatches.
So D'Antoni's offense gradually evolved to play to its strengths—or as D'Antoni now calls it, "James and Chris seconds or less."
(If we're being precise, the Rockets offense could be called "12.45 seconds or less, give or take." That's their average time per possession, just slightly faster than the league average of 12.67 seconds, according to the Rockets' analytics staff.)
There were no high-level strategy sessions or debates before making this shift—just an acknowledgment of the obvious. Harden and Paul's ruthless efficiency simply negated whatever aesthetically based opposition D'Antoni once had to iso-ball.
"I've lost that," he says. "I do not care. Because I've been around a long time. I do know there's all kinds of different ways to win."
Though, as Rockets general manager Daryl Morey says of D'Antoni, "I think at some level it probably pains him more that people are forcing us into attacking them in ways that maybe aren't his first choice."
He embraces—or at least, tolerates—this version of iso-ball because it starts with his favored pick-and-roll set, as opposed to the old-school approach, where teams simply dumped the ball to a stationary player, cleared out and let him grind away. Just as important: Both Harden and Paul are elite, willing passers who can turn those isolation moments into playmaking opportunities. (Also, their isolations often lead to three-point attempts—not the low-efficiency mid-range shots that, for instance, Anthony sought when he played for D'Antoni in New York.)
As long as his players are prioritizing layups, three-pointers and free throws—the staples of D'Antoni's system—they're free to get them by whatever means necessary.
The new D'Antoni mantra? "As long as it works, feels good, you can do anything you wanna do."
Harden surely appreciates the flexibility. As he recently told the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen, "That's called great coaching."
"You don't overthink it," Harden said. "You don't be stubborn and say, 'This is how I want the offense to be run.' You look at the team you have from top to bottom and put a system out there that fits your guys."
Who can argue? The Rockets rolled through the first two rounds of the playoffs, beating Minnesota and then Utah by 4-1 margins…while ranking ninth out of 16 teams in pace. But the Rockets have the engine to run and gun with the best, when necessary, and that day may be coming.
"It's good that we got enough talent that we can get away with [iso-ball]," Rockets guard Eric Gordon says. But against the small-ball Warriors, "We're gonna have to get back to playing superfast."
Indeed, the Rockets' internal analytics—which breaks down the shot clock into four six-second segments—underscore what D'Antoni has long believed and preached: They score most efficiently in the first segment (1.22 points per possession, per the Rockets' internal calculations) and very efficiently in the second segment (1.20), and the offense precipitously declines in the third (1.16) and fourth (1.06) segments. (Leaguewide, the trend holds. Per the Rockets, the average scoring per possession declines from 1.20 points in the first segment to 1.12, 1.08 and 1.01.)
To beat the Warriors—who might be the most powerful iteration of D'Antoni-ball ever seen—the Rockets will need to find easier ways to score.
"We know we have to slay a dragon," D'Antoni says.
The not-so-subtle irony: It's the Warriors, with their spiffy ball and player movement, that most embody the ethos of D'Antoni's old Suns teams. It's not exactly the same system—the Warriors don't run nearly as much pick-and-roll, and Steve Kerr has borrowed from both the Spurs and Phil Jackson's triangle offense—but the aesthetic matches the principles that D'Antoni once preached in Seven Seconds or Less, the Jack McCallum book that chronicled the 2005-06 Suns season.
"Oh s--t," D'Antoni says, upon seeing an old hardcover edition. "That's some good stuff."
And he winces when presented with a passage on page 24, where McCallum described all that ailed the NBA then—"too little running, too much stodgy offense," a lack of "spontaneity" and "a premium on isolation alignments designed to get one player the ball and turn his four teammates into statues. That's what D'Antoni wanted to change."
D'Antoni can only laugh.
"Now I've gone back!" he exclaims in his West Virginia drawl. "There you go. Life has come full circle, baby. That's funny. That is funny."