The last time Mike D’Antoni won a playoff game, Steve Kerr was his boss, Shaquille O’Neal was his center, and Amar’e Stoudemire still hadn’t added the apostrophe to his first name.
In the nearly nine years since D’Antoni’s Suns avoided a sweep at the hands of the Spurs in the first round of the 2008 playoffs, the “Seven Seconds or Less” innovator has survived Linsanity, a Dwightmare and “The Process,” only to accumulate an 0-8 postseason record. In 2011, his mediocre Knicks, fresh off trading for Carmelo Anthony, stood no chance against the Celtics. In 2013, his Lakers, without an injured Kobe Bryant, were humiliated by the Spurs as Dwight Howard was ejected from his last game in LA. In between, one of the pioneering minds behind the “Pace and Space” era parted ways with both big-market franchises and quietly spent last season as an assistant for the dead-end Sixers.
D’Antoni’s postseason drought should end next month following a Rockets season in which the 65-year-old coach has gotten his groove back. His star player, James Harden, has emerged as the MVP favorite by mixing scoring and playmaking for others in a way that Anthony and Bryant never mastered. His GM, Daryl Morey, is one of the leading contenders for Executive of the Year after making a series of big bets – hiring D’Antoni, extending Harden, letting Howard walk, and signing Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to long-term deals despite injury issues – that set the stage for Houston’s run to the West’s third seed.
Meanwhile, his neon green light approach to offense has been validated like never before, with Houston entering Tuesday’s action boasting one of the five most efficient offenses of the three-point era.
“My guess is that he’ll get the [Coach of the Year] trophy,” Kerr, the former Suns GM turned Warriors coach, said Tuesday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “He’s earned it.”
But then Golden State, playing without Kevin Durant and briefly losing Draymond Green to a minor ankle injury, claimed a 113-106 victory on Houston’s court, racing out to a 22-point lead midway through the second quarter before feasting on clean looks in crunch time. Kerr’s arsenal of wing defenders succeeded in limiting Harden to 5-20 shooting, one of his five worst shooting nights of the year, and the Rockets tied their season-low by making just five threes. On the other end, Stephen Curry led all scorers with 32 points, getting loose for a pair of jumpers to seal the result.
Rockets fans can be forgiven for feeling a little déjà vu: Harden is now 3-17 against the Warriors over the last three seasons (1-9 in the regular season and 2-8 in the playoffs). This is simply a nightmare matchup: Houston can’t surprise Golden State by playing fast, going small or launching threes, it lacks the defensive personnel to match up with all of Golden State’s stars, it struggles to hide its defensive weak links, and it is far more reliant upon Harden than Golden State is on any of its stars.
Unfortunately for D’Antoni, Tuesday night’s defeat also rekindled some old criticisms that most fans can recite with ease by this point. According to his doubters, D’Antoni’s teams are too dependent on three-pointers, too willing to trade buckets, and capable of blowing away weaker opponents only to look mortal against top competition. Whether or not those knocks actually apply in a general sense, Houston looked awfully toothless against Golden State. Harden found success hitting Clint Capela with pick-and-roll lobs and suckering defenders into fouling him on the perimeter, but he didn’t dictate the terms of the game as he so often has this season. Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green all regularly enjoyed too much oxygen when in scoring position, and Golden State consistently and easily broke down Houston’s defense with the pass.
Houston’s formula for a deep postseason run this year will require its offense to perform at a much higher level than it did on Tuesday. There are good reasons to believe this is possible. First, Houston is expected to host its first-round playoff series as the No. 3 seed and holds a 5-1 combined record against its two most likely opponents (the Clippers and Thunder). Second, stylistic trends play in the Rockets’ favor: offense is way up this season and stretch lineups have dictated many of the major strategic adjustments in each of the last three postseasons. Third, D’Antoni’s postseason track record can be viewed as a mixed bag with some reason for optimism.
Note, first, that this year’s Rockets are outperforming all of D’Antoni’s previous playoff teams when it comes to offensive efficiency. In other words, Harden is actually running D’Antoni ball better than Steve Nash. Second, D’Antoni’s early Suns teams managed to improve their attack in the postseason. Can Harden and company shock and awe playoff foes on their way to back-to-back conference finals trips in 2005 and 2006?
More recent history isn’t as kind to D’Antoni. His 2011 Knicks and 2013 Lakers (without Bryant) both had the least efficient offenses in the playoffs, tumbling badly from their regular season marks. His latter-day Suns teams also struggled to keep up their blistering offenses in 2007 and 2008.
All of this sets up the 2017 playoffs as a fascinating referendum on D’Antoni. Yes, the Warriors adopted some of his elements to win the 2015 title and make the 2016 Finals, but they also had the benefit of an elite defense. D’Antoni’s Rockets are only average on that end this season, meaning they might find themselves outclassed by the Warriors and Spurs. Houston’s range between reasonable best-case and worst-case scenarios is as wide as any team’s in the league: A Finals trip isn’t out of the question, but neither is a deeply disappointing first-round upset.
A decade after his last series victory, it’s time for D’Antoni to prove that his playoff reality can catch up to the influence of his theories.