Layups, free throws and three-pointers are good shots. Everything else — namely midrange jumpers — should be avoided at all costs.
“To me, you’re always striving to be perfect,” D’Antoni told The Washington Post in an interview last season, “and being perfect is all layups or threes.
“We had a game where we had five midrange shots, and if we push that to zero, I’d be happy. I don’t know if we can or not, but that’s ideal, because they’re just not good shots.”
It’s a mission statement that has spread across the league, leading to a rising number of three-point attempts each year as virtually every player who steps onto an NBA court these days — including increasingly athletic 7-footers — is expected to be able to step behind the three-point arc and knock down a shot.
When he arrived in Houston last year, though, D’Antoni was able to take his beliefs to new extremes. Working for another analytically inclined basketball mind in General Manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets last season practically refused to take any shot that wasn’t at the rim or behind the arc. The strategy ultimately resulted in them short-circuiting in the final two games of their season — losses in Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, when the San Antonio Spurs basically dared the Rockets to shoot from midrange, and the Rockets wouldn’t.
Those Rockets, however, didn’t have Chris Paul. This year’s Rockets do.
When the Utah Jazz tried in Friday night’s Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals to utilize a strategy similar to the Spurs, Houston took advantage. Paul’s proficiency in the midrange area allowed the Rockets to bludgeon Utah, 113-92, and take back control of the series.
“That’s a layup for him,” James Harden said about Paul shooting midrange jumpers. “That’s just like getting to the rim.”
When the Rockets acquired Paul in a blockbuster trade in June, it was proof Houston had acknowledged two shortcomings. First, after falling apart at the end of the Spurs series, it was clear that Harden needed an additional ballhandler to help shoulder the burden of running D’Antoni’s offense. The second was that some variety was needed if Houston was going to be able to take the next step in its progression as a championship contender.
That doesn’t mean the Rockets have abandoned their principles — they took 3,470 three-pointers this season, 546 more than the Brooklyn Nets, who took the second most. But in having Paul at their disposal, the Rockets have a weapon they can unleash on elite defenses, such as the Spurs and Jazz, when they limit the more efficient shots Houston normally prefers.
That’s exactly what the Rockets did Friday night.
Houston took 12 midrange jumpers in the first half of Game 3 — more than the 11 each taken in Games 5 and 6 of the Spurs series a year ago. The Rockets went 11 for 12 on those shots — with Paul going 5 for 6.
The result? Despite Utah holding the Rockets to 13-for-21 shooting at the rim (61.5 percent) and 8-for-21 shooting from behind the three-point arc (38.1 percent) — both solid, but unspectacular, percentages — Houston led 70-40 at halftime, thanks in large part to the power of those midrange shots.
“It sounds like CP, to me,” D’Antoni said with a laugh. “CP has a license that he can do that. Not many people can, but he has freedom. He’s one of the best ever at it. So, when you have that, you have to let him play his game. That is a lot. Normally we take one or two … but I think they were good shots, and you have to give them credit, too. They run us off the [three-point line] and sometimes that’s what we have left, and you have to do it.”
It’s another sign of growth from a franchise that has come a long way since last season’s meltdown at this same stage of the postseason.
The switching defense that Houston implemented before the season, and has run in all 90 games it has played so far in the regular season and playoffs, worked splendidly against Utah’s offense, forcing rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell into a disastrous performance (10 points on 4-for-16 shooting) that was emblematic of Utah’s disjointed showing.
“I didn’t really do much,” Mitchell said. “That can’t happen. That will probably be what I take away the most [from this game].
“It’s like I would have been better off not showing up, and that’s what I did. I didn’t show up for my teammates. I’ll fix it.”
These changes — the diversifying of Houston’s offense, the swarming defense, the trade for Paul and the signings of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute — were made with the goal of becoming a viable challenger to the Golden State Warriors. Houston won 65 games, earned the top seed in the playoffs and has become formidable enough to challenge a team that, for the most part, hasn’t been tested since Kevin Durant arrived in the Bay Area two summers ago.
Friday’s performance, led by Paul’s mastery from the midrange, showcased those changes. With two more victories over the Jazz, the Rockets will get the chance to prove this new version of themselves can compete with any team in the league — including the Warriors.
“It’s just about staying aggressive,” forward Trevor Ariza said. “It’s about staying true to who we are as a team, and as individuals as well, and taking advantage of what the defense gives you.”
That won’t lead to the perfect shot chart D’Antoni has spent his career striving for. But it was the winning formula Friday night.
Jazz forward Joe Ingles hit the first shot of Utah’s Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series against the Rockets.
For Utah, though, it all went downhill from there.
Houston dominated virtually every second after that, taking a 17-point lead after one quarter and a 30-point lead at halftime as the Rockets cruised to a 113-92 victory, one that gave them a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series, and saw Houston regain home-court advantage after giving it away in its Game 2 loss Wednesday night.
James Harden and Eric Gordon each scored 25 points to lead the Rockets, while Harden had 12 assists. Royce O’Neale led the Jazz with 17 points, but rookie Donovan Mitchell had just 10 points on 4-for-16 shooting, Joe Ingles had six points on 2-for-10 shooting, Jae Crowder had seven points on 1-for-6 shooting and starting power forward Derrick Favors left the game with a sprained ankle, and didn’t return.
The fans here in Utah came prepared to cheer their team to a victory.
Instead, they are sitting in stunned silence after three quarters as their Jazz are being run out of their own building.
This has been a remarkable, dominant performance by Houston in Game 3 of this Western Conference semifinal. The Rockets have led by as many as 38, and lead 93-65 after three quarters.
James Harden and Eric Gordon have 20 points each to lead the Rockets, with Harden also leading Houston with 10 assists. Royce O’Neale has 15 points to lead Utah, whose only other player in double figures is Rudy Gobert, who has 10.
Donovan Mitchell, on the other hand, is just 3-for-14, including 2-for-6 from three, and has eight points.
Talk about making a statement.
If there was anyone doubting the Rockets after their disappointing performance in Game 2 of this Western Conference semifinal series with the Jazz, they should be back on the bandwagon after an insane performance in the first half of Game 3.
Houston leads 70-40 at halftime, completely eviscerating a Utah team that felt good about its chances after evening this series at a game apiece with a win Wednesday. The Rockets shot 58.7 percent from the field, 38.1 percent from three and committed just three turnovers — all by Clint Capela, who also had three blocks and altered at least that many Jazz shots inside.
Utah, meanwhile, got nothing from rookie Donovan Mitchell, who went 1 for 10 and scored four points. The same could be said for the rest of his team — the Jazz shot just 36.6 percent, with Joe Ingles going 1 for 5 (with the make coming on his first shot of the game), and Derrick Favors and Jae Crowder going 1 for 4.
If it wasn’t for Royce O’Neale — starting in place of injured point guard Ricky Rubio for a third straight game — scoring nine points and Alec Burks adding eight off the bench, this game would somehow be even more out of hand.
Eric Gordon scored 17 points off the bench to lead Houston, while Chris Paul added 12 points and James Harden 10 to go with seven assists.
Clint Capela is going to be a rich man this summer.
The Rockets center, who is going to be a restricted free agent, has had a breakout season for Houston, and is showing what he’s capable of in Game 3 against the Jazz. His line isn’t eye-popping — four points, two rebounds, one assists, two steals and two blocks in 11 minutes — but he’s been all over the floor.
In the past minute or so, he has stoned both Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert at the rim, and he is generally wreaking havoc everywhere. He’s a big part of why the Rockets currently lead by 22, and why closing that gap isn’t going to be easy.
Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni was asked before Game 3 Friday night about the fact that Houston hasn’t lost two straight games with Chris Paul and James Harden healthy since late December.
“It gets your attention when you lose,” said D’Antoni, who’s team lost Game 2 of this Western Conference semifinal series Wednesday night in Houston. “You’re a little bit more focused the next time [you go] out.
“No guarantees, but I think they got our attention. They smacked us good.”
The Rockets played the first quarter like a team whose attention is solely focused on regaining control of this series.
Houston stormed out to a 39-22 lead after one quarter, blitzing Utah by shooting over 60 percent from the field — including 12 for 15 from inside the three-point arc.
Utah, meanwhile, shot 38 percent and committed six turnovers, leading to nine Rockets points. Houston didn’t turn the ball over once.
Eric Gordon leads a balanced scoring attack for Houston with eight points, while James Harden and P.J. Tucker have seven apiece, and Trevor Ariza has six. Alec Burks leads Utah with eight.
Playoff series can be fickle, funny things. Because of the magnitude of the moment, each game takes on heightened importance, and can alter the course of the games that come after it.
If a team gets an advantage, it is wise to keep exploiting that advantage and not allow an opponent to get back into the series, if possible.
The Warriors, and specifically Coach Steve Kerr, would have been wise to heed that counsel.
No, the decision to start JaVale McGee isn’t the only reason the Warriors got run out of the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Friday night, losing 119-100 to the Pelicans. But it certainly played a part in allowing the Pelicans to get off to a hot start and in giving them the momentum to blow out the Warriors.
Anthony Davis had 33 points, 18 rebounds, three assists and four steals in 41 minutes for New Orleans, while Jrue Holiday added 21 points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks. Rajon Rondo — in a performance more typical for him than anyone else — had four points, 10 rebounds and 21 assists while going 2 for 11 from the field.
Klay Thompson had 26 points and seven rebounds in 36 minutes for Golden State — with 20 of the points coming in the second quarter alone — while Kevin Durant had 22 points. New Orleans went 14 for 30 from three, while Golden State went 9 for 30 from three and shot just 38 percent total from the field.
All of that adds up to Golden State now having a series on its hands — one it could have avoided had the Warriors started the game the same way they had the first two games of this series.
They didn’t, however, and New Orleans happily took advantage.
The Pelicans have turned this game into a boat race.
Outscoring the Warriors 30-19 in the third quarter, New Orleans has taken a commanding 92-75 lead over Golden State through three quarters of Game 3 of this Western Conference semifinal.
While the Warriors made life difficult for themselves by starting JaVale McGee in each half — he’s minus-10 in nine inexplicable minutes — that’s far from the only reason this game has been so ugly. Golden State has been listless, while New Orleans has played with the kind of desire and desperation one would expect of a team fighting for its playoff life.
Golden State has looked overwhelmed by the pressure New Orleans has put on it, and unable to cope, outside of brief flashes. If it wasn’t for 8-2 stretches to end both the second and third quarters, this game would be completely out of hand.
As it is, the Warriors still haven’t shown much of an ability to make this competitive. It’s hard to see New Orleans shutting off with so much momentum behind it, and with a raucous home crowd supporting it. Golden State has the firepower to make this a close one, but having gone just 8 for 25 through three quarters, it’s going to be difficult to do so.
After Golden State started slow with JaVale McGee in the starting lineup, there was some thought the Warriors might go small to start the second half — as they did in Games 1 and 2, both victories.
Instead, they again went big. It did not go well.
McGee will likely see his night end with a minus-10 rating in nine minutes, as Golden State was outscored 10-2 to start the second half and now trails 72-58. It truly is baffling why Kerr would choose to go big after having success for the past two games starting with Draymond Green at center.
Whatever the reason, it backfired big time. Golden State may have itself the game because of it.
A fun fact about Klay Thompson’s 20-point second quarter: It was the first time in Thompson’s postseason career he scored at least 20 points in a quarter, according to Golden State’s PR staff.
His previous high: 19 points in the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in Oklahoma City — a game Golden State came back in because of Thompson’s heroics to beat the Thunder and force a Game 7. Golden State would eventually complete that comeback, setting the stage for Kevin Durant to join them as a free agent that summer.
On Friday, the Warriors struggled the entire first half but only trailed by six at halftime thanks to Thompson.
The all-star shooting guard scored the final eight points of the half for the Warriors — to drag Golden State back into a game it has trailed by as many as 15.
Besides Thompson, the Warriors haven’t done much. Durant is the only other Warrior in double figures, with 13 points, while Stephen Curry is 3 for 10 and has nine points.
Nikola Mirotic and Jrue Holiday each had 14 points to lead New Orleans, while Anthony Davis had 11 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals.
One other thing to watch: Thompson is the only starter on either team with more than one foul; he has three.
Nothing went right for the Warriors in the first quarter.
The decision to start JaVale McGee backfired, allowing the Pelicans to race out to a 30-21 lead after one. Golden State started 9 for 25, including 1 for 7 from three-point range. New Orleans, on the other hand, went 12 for 23 from the floor and 6 for 10 from three — numbers that improved to 14 for 25 and 7 for 11 as the Pelicans opened their lead to 36-21 to begin the second.
After controlling most of the first two games, the Warriors had to know New Orleans would come out with a desperate mind-set to begin Game 3, as a third loss in a row would all but end their season. Golden State, however, has done nothing to slow New Orleans down thus far.
The Warriors had great success playing with a small-ball lineup when Stephen Curry was out in Game 1 and coming off the bench in Game 2.
So when Curry entered the starting lineup for Game 3, Golden State … went big?
In a confusing move, the Warriors started JaVale McGee — who had started all five games against the San Antonio Spurs before being benched for all but garbage time in Game 1 and all of Game 2 — against the Pelicans in Game 3.
Playing McGee against the best big man in the league, Anthony Davis, seemed like an odd move, especially after he didn’t play any kind of a role in the first two games. One line of thinking is that Warriors Coach Steve Kerr might have wanted to have someone out there to take early fouls against Davis. But, in that case, he could’ve just gone with Kevon Looney, who played rotation minutes in the first two games of the series.
Starting McGee also meant sending Andre Iguodala to the bench, after he’d done a terrific job limiting Pelicans forward Nikola Mirotic in the first two games.
Whatever the intended result, it didn’t work out to a good start for the Warriors, who trail midway through the first quarter.
The Golden State Warriors spent the regular season leaving people wondering if a team could now contend with them. At times, plenty of people thought they weren’t even the favorites to win the title.
Entering their eighth game of this postseason, however — Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal against the New Orleans Pelicans — those questions have been answered. Golden State, as it has been since the moment Kevin Durant arrived in the summer of 2016, is the massive favorite to win the title.
Why? Because the way they sleepily moved through the regular season (en route to 58 wins, by the way) wasn’t because Golden State has lost a step collectively. Instead, as Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry told reporters before Game 3, it was because the Warriors were bored.
They aren’t anymore.
“This is a team that just won a championship, and seems to be putting it all together right now,” Gentry said. “It seems they were a little bit bored with the regular season, but right now they seem to be all locked in.”
The Warriors remain unique in that they have four of the best 15 or so players in the NBA. No other team has more than two.
When the playoffs arrive, talent usually wins out. Golden State would fall short this season only if injuries diminished that talent advantage, or if the malaise with which they played the regular season carried over to the playoffs.
Stephen Curry returned in Game 2 of this series, getting Golden State’s core rotation back on the court for the first time in two months, and their play through the first seven games of these playoffs has proven the malaise is gone now that the stakes are bigger.
The result is Golden State has returned to its previous status as overwhelming favorites to win the title.
- Pelicans 119, Warriors 100 (Warriors lead series, 2-1)
- Rockets 113, Jazz 92 (Rockets lead series, 2-1)
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