OAKLAND, Calif. — When the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship in June, the Houston Rockets’ Daryl Morey was the first general manager to proclaim publicly that his team wasn’t ceding this season as a comfortable victory lap to a second straight crown for the league’s dominant super team.
“They are not unbeatable,” Morey told ESPN.com at the time. “There have been bigger upsets in sports history. We are going to keep improving our roster.
“We are used to long odds. If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve.”
That proved to be the case. Two weeks later, Morey landed star point guard Chris Paul in a sign-and-trade before July’s free agency period began, kicking off what turned out to be a frenetic leaguewide arms race to try to find a way to catch up to Golden State.
So it is fitting that, after the Rockets began the chase by landing Paul, Houston will now face the Warriors here Tuesday night at Oracle Arena, getting an immediate chance to see how they stack up — even if everyone involved dismisses the significance of one game out of 82 regular season contests.
“Did it really change anything when San Antonio beat them by 40 last year in the first game of the year?” Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni said Monday with a laugh, referring to Golden State’s 29-point loss to the Spurs in their season opener last October. “There’s nothing that’s really indicative of anything.
“We closed the gap only because I feel we’re better this year than last year. Now, we’ll see if they’re better. Maybe they’re better, and it’s just an illusion.
“But, I mean, that’s the reason we can say that. We feel we’re a better team this year. But we’ve got a ways to go.”
That begins with the partnership of Paul and James Harden, the runner-up for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award for the second time in three seasons. After the Rockets faded in the final minutes of regulation and overtime of a Game 5 loss to the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals — only to then get routed in Houston in Game 6 while Kawhi Leonard sat out with an injury — D’Antoni admitted Monday that the Rockets needed something different to succeed in the playoffs this time around.
“When you hit the playoffs, those first actions don’t really work,” D’Antoni said. “So, now, what do you add after that? We’re trying to get better at that.”
Paul should make a significant difference. Houston has another future Hall of Famer to share ballhandling responsibilities with Harden, while also allowing D’Antoni to have an elite playmaker for all 48 minutes of the game. But Paul’s elite ability to knock down midrange jumpers also will help the Rockets avoid falling into the same trap they did against the Spurs, who dared them to take those shots — attempts Houston loathes because of their inefficiency, preferring instead to attack the rim for layups or kick the ball out for three-pointers. Houston’s offense sputtered because of it.
In order for that partnership to work, though, Paul and Harden have to get on the same page. That’s a process Harden said is ongoing, both through hanging out off the court and getting used to being teammates on it. Videos seemed to surface daily of the two guards playing together in Los Angeles all summer — something Harden said they hadn’t done before they were paired up.
“On the court, that’s going to take time,” Harden said. “There’s going to be a lot of adjusting. We’re two smart players, two very unselfish players, and it’s going to work itself out.”
At least publicly, the Rockets enter the season confident. The additions of not only Paul but rugged forwards P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute have Houston feeling confident it can become a better defensive team while remaining one of the league’s elite offenses. If Houston can improve from a tie for 17th defensively last season to, say, 10th, a push for 60 wins would be realistic.
D’Antoni thinks that’s the win total the Rockets should be aiming for.
“I’m excited about the season,” he said. “I’m excited about the impression we can make. The potential is there. We have the potential to be a really good team. Now, whether we realize that potential? We’ll see.
“We should have won 60 last year. We screwed it up. After the all-star break, we were very mediocre. Hopefully, this year we won’t screw it up.”
Tuesday’s game won’t determine whether the Rockets will be successful this season, just as Golden State’s horrendous debut a year ago wound up being completely meaningless. But it will give them a chance to see where it stands after a summer of pursuing the Warriors.
And after thinking about Golden State all summer, Houston is excited to see how it looks.
“We have really high hopes,” forward Ryan Anderson said. “We expect great things this year.”
>> On the final day for rookie extensions to be agreed upon, none happened beyond the deals previously struck for Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Gary Harris. One extension that did happen Monday, stunningly, was LaMarcus Aldridge agreeing to opt into the final year of his contract next season, and to tack on two more years on top of that. The deal was surprising not because Aldridge isn’t a talented player — he’s looked particularly good in this preseason — but because of the constant rumblings coming out of San Antonio for at least a year now that both sides of this partnership were less than thrilled with it.
ESPN.com’s Michael C. Wright did an excellent job of explaining, from his vantage point, why this rocky marriage was, in the end, one both sides agreed to keep going. But, at the same time, I can’t help but be reminded of what I wrote in my 10 bold predictions column last week, that the Spurs would finish outside the top four spots in the Western Conference:
“Betting against the Spurs is never a good idea. After all, this is a franchise that has made the playoffs in 27 of the past 28 years — and, in the one year they didn’t, they won the lottery and drafted Tim Duncan.
But if any other team had the summer the Spurs did — re-signing Pau Gasol to a three-year deal at age 37, entering the season with an unproven option at point guard in Dejounte Murray and relying on Rudy Gay recovering from an Achilles’ tear — they would’ve received a lot of grief.”
Add this Aldridge extension to the mix.
>> Speaking of the Spurs, after President Trump said past presidents didn’t call the families of soldiers killed in the line of duty, Coach Gregg Popovich called The Nation’s Dave Zirin and let his feelings on the subject be known.
As usual, Popovich was eloquent and expansive on the subject. And for the “stick to sports” crowd, remember: Popovich went to the Air Force Academy, and served in the military. If anyone in sports can speak on these subjects, it is him.
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