HOUSTON — OK, OK, so everyone can put off those restaurant reservations in the Mission District during the NBA Finals in June, and those hikes in the Oakland Hills can wait. The Western Conference final has heated up and 95-degrees-in-the-shade, shirt-sticks-to-your-back Houston just may be where it’s at.
The Houston Rockets came back from the Game 1 dead, discarded their slow-motion offense and put on a ferocious display in Game 2. They shoved around the artistes known as the Golden State Warriors and claimed a 127-105 victory Wednesday night.
In truth, you could see this coming. For two days, Rockets coaches, players, their spouses and perhaps their children in elementary school cafeterias talked intently of playing intensely, faster, harder, with more force. The Rockets won 65 games during the regular season, and coach and players acknowledged that they came out for the first game playing as if their stomachs were knotted.
“We got a little rattled, and we can’t do that,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.
Not to worry. On Wednesday night, James Harden, the Rockets’ cool cat glider of a superstar guard, walked onto the court to practice, his black hoodie and that bushy black beard calling to mind a Middle-earth wizard. He shot a while, scooped up a basketball and retreated to the bench. Cradling that ball like a baby, he listened to Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar and Z-Ro, his head bobbing, his body moving this way and that, his index fingers wagging in unison. Then he leaned forward and, still seated, dribbled Harlem Globetrotter-style, tiny patty-cake dribbles, then rat-a-tat big ones between his legs, and then a crazy weave, the whole time grooving to the music.
He was in a world of his own. A police officer stood 8 feet away and watched, mesmerized. Harden hopped up, laid down a dance move in those red sneakers of his, and ran and jumped and threw down an emphatic windmill dunk.
Just like that, his teammates responded with ecstatic, ferocious dunks. It was apparent that this was a pumped-up team.
Harden’s game, his teammates’ games, looked different this evening. Harden offered fewer crossover dances; no, no, ándale, baby. Come on, we’re going to the hoop. So he took one graceful-muscular layup after another. And then he and the complementary players started hitting jumpers over the Warriors.
They do not miss. P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon had wandered in the valley of the shadow in Game 1. This time they shot a combined 11 for 15 from 3-point land, including a few launched from near the Budweiser sign at the scorer’s table. They played bruising, bounce-off-my-biceps defense.
Did you see a difference tonight, James?
He leaned and intoned softly: “The first game we were at a 70. Tonight we’re at a 95. It’s about aggression.”
We can’t allow ourselves to get comfortable, he said. Otherwise, Golden State will run and spin and “pick us apart.”
One of the fascinations of this series, and the season that preceded it, was watching D’Antoni, 67, reinvent himself and his team. He ran the Phoenix Suns for many years and became known as the original Mr. Beautiful Basketball, Señor Shoot the Ball in Seven Seconds or Less. No one could lay a better claim to being the father of our modern and oh-so-fluid game.