HOUSTON — While the Houston Rockets spent seven months preparing for these Western Conference finals, they have spent more than five years preparing for the big moment that Game 2 brought.
From the day in October 2012 that General Manager Daryl Morey traded for James Harden, getting another chance at a superstar after injuries derailed the careers of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, Houston has been building toward its chance to compete for a championship.
There have been several stumbles along the way. The failed marriage of Harden and Dwight Howard resulted in one conference finals appearance (and just barely), followed by a .500 season and an ugly first-round exit. Last year served as a revival — only to have the Rockets implode in the final two games of their Western Conference semifinal with the San Antonio Spurs, including a 39-point loss in Game 6 here in Toyota Center, a game in which Harden disappeared.
Wednesday felt like the moment of truth. Despite winning 65 games, despite having the presumptive league MVP, despite having a roster that Houston repeatedly proclaimed was constructed to at least give the Golden State Warriors a challenge, there wasn’t a lot of optimism it would actually happen after Golden State walked in here Monday night and stole home-court advantage with a Game 1 victory.
In this moment, with all that scar tissue, how would this group respond?
Turns out, Houston did exactly what a team with its profile, résumé and talent should do. It showed up hungry. It showed up desperate. It showed up determined.
And the Rockets emerged victorious.
“We didn’t change anything,” Chris Paul said after Houston’s 127-105 victory. “We just did everything a little bit harder.”
That there were so many questions about Houston’s ability to take a punch is proof positive of the failures this franchise has endured since Harden arrived. Over the past six seasons, the Rockets have gone from one iteration to the next, always searching for that path to championship contention. On multiple occasions, it looked like it was there — only to disappear just as quickly.
Then came this season, when the Rockets traded for Paul and gave the ball to him and Harden for 48 minutes every game, one of the few times in NBA history a team has been able to have Hall of Fame point guard play for every second possible. Pairing them with Mike D’Antoni, the coach who revolutionized the game, has yielded wondrous results.
Two days of questioning following Game 1, with people demanding Houston change the way it plays, didn’t stop the Rockets from calmly insisting that the sky is not falling. They were not about to stop playing the way they have been, simply because of one bad game.
Game 2 proved they were correct.
“We are who we are, and we had to be who we are,” D’Antoni said. “We just did it better, longer. Guys believe it, and we’re not going to change anything up. That would be silly on my part to panic. You don’t do that. We’re very comfortable about who we are, and we can beat anybody, anywhere, at any time playing the way we play. Some people might not like it, you know? Hey, sorry. You know, it might not look good to some people. But it’s effective. It’s efficient.
“The one good thing about Golden State is that [Coach] Steve Kerr does a great job. He plays exactly the way that team has to play. He took his talent, figured it out and they are very efficient and one of the best teams ever. We as a coaching staff try to do the same thing. … This is the best way that we play, I think. I could be mistaken, but I obviously believe in it. And we’re going to play that and live with the results.”
The results were pretty spectacular in Game 2. Harden and Paul were good, not great. Everyone else, though, was on fire. Remove the two struggling stars, and Houston went 12 for 22 from three-point range. After combining to score nine points in Game 1, Trevor Ariza (19 points) and P.J. Tucker (22 points, seven rebounds, four assists) put up 41 in Game 2. Eric Gordon poured in 27 off the bench, while Clint Capela was a presence inside all night, despite modest numbers (five points, 10 rebounds).
It should be said: The Warriors were more than complicit in their own demise. They almost welcomed it. When Golden State had seven first-quarter turnovers — including at least three complete miscommunications that saw passes sail out of bounds — it was clear the team’s focus was on anything but the 48 minutes of basketball it had to play Wednesday night.
This has been a common theme for this Warriors team this season. The difference Wednesday night, though, was that the Warriors were playing a team that could embarrass them. And that’s exactly what Houston did.
“We got outplayed the whole game,” Kerr said. “We’re playing a team that won 65 games. They’re damn good. We got it handed to us.”
The Warriors didn’t show up. The Rockets did. That’s what made this feel like a moment for this franchise. Getting routed in a four-game sweep by this Golden State team would have led to an examination of everything Houston did over the past year to try to catch the champs: questions about Paul’s future, about Harden’s ability to lead a championship team, about D’Antoni’s chances of winning big in the postseason.
Faced with their moment of truth, the Rockets didn’t panic. They responded like a championship team.
“We played harder,” D’Antoni said. “We got into them. They felt us physically. We didn’t quite have that same intensity in the first game. Our guys are great. They learned from it, snapped back and did the job.”
The Western Conference finals have now officially begun, and any questions about Houston’s championship pedigree have their answer.