OAKLAND — The NBA’s opening night featured just two games, and yet Tuesday’s roller-coaster double-header still managed to produce two genuine jolts to the title chase—one crushing and one uplifting.
Let’s not dwell too long on Boston’s misery in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s severe ankle injury, as that would be unnecessarily cruel. The refashioned Celtics needed all hands on deck—and their big free-agency acquisition to play the best basketball of his career—if they were to have any hope of spoiling the Cavaliers’ championship dreams. Instead, a top-heavy roster lost a two-way All-Star it really, really couldn’t afford to lose. Hayward’s long-term absence will expose Boston’s shooting limitations and its lack of experienced defenders with the requisite length and quickness to handle elite wings. Those are fatal flaws, no matter how many points Kyrie Irving scores and no matter how easy he makes it look.
The Celtics should still make the playoffs and they still could be delightful, but their season’s best-case scenario disappeared for good during their 102-99 road loss to the Cavaliers. Barring a miracle rehabilitation and a seamless late-season integration for Hayward, Boston’s ceiling caved in just minutes into game one of 82.
While Hayward’s gruesome injury brought a swift end to the Celtics’ status as the league’s most intriguing team, the Rockets needed only a few hours to stake a new claim to that title. Despite Kevin Durant receiving his first championship ring and the Warriors raising their latest banner to the Oracle Arena rafters shortly before tip-off, James Harden and company survived a first-half onslaught to pull off a 122-121 come-from-behind upset.
To be clear, the Rockets needed a generous helping of breaks to stun the defending champions. Stephen Curry was limited by early foul trouble. Draymond Green missed the entire fourth quarter with a knee strain. Andre Iguodala sat out with a minor injury. Complacency kicked in after Golden State calmly racked up 72 first-half points and built a double-digit lead. Kevin Durant committed eight turnovers and held on to his game-winning baseline jumper for a split-second too long, allowing the referees to wipe out the bucket on video replay. There’s a blizzard’s worth of asterisks to apply to the result, without question.
Nevertheless, there was intrigue in Houston’s win and in its manner of play. The fourth-quarter turnaround—keyed by a 34-20 push following Green’s departure from the game—was only possible because Houston didn’t crack during Golden State’s hot shooting start. To close it out, the Rockets relied on a sure and steady Harden (27 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds) in his first game after his historic playoff no-show. Coach Mike D’Antoni’s decision to sit a limited Chris Paul for the final 4:47 of the fourth quarter also weighed heavily on the result, as did Paul’s willingness to accept a “cheerleader” role in his first game following a blockbuster summer trade. And then there was reserve P.J. Tucker (20 points, 6 rebounds), who turned in a savvy, game-changing performance and hit the game-winning free throws in the final minute.
But the “Who” was less interesting than the “How” for Houston. D’Antoni played starting center Clint Capela less than half the game and he never inserted any of his reserve big men into the contest. Instead, he stuck to a tight eight-man rotation that regularly featured 6’10” stretch forward Ryan Anderson or the 6’6” Tucker as the nominal center in super-small lineup configurations. Houston’s aim is clear: To ensure that its offensive firepower is maximized by keeping four or five shooters on the court at once while compensating for its lack of size and rebounding by upping its ability to switch defensively.
These “Interchange-a-Ball” lineups performed far better (+24) than lineups with Capela (-23), but they were certainly aided by Green’s absence. Without Green, Golden State’s offense was down a shooter and its defense was missing its backline stalwart. Both of those tilting circumstances played perfectly into Houston’s small-ball hands. When Green and Durant were on the court together, Houston’s defense regularly struggled to cope with Golden State’s length, its diversity of shooting options and its ability to get out in transition.
Houston hasn’t solved Golden State—not even close—but it has evolved into a wholly unique threat by mixing two elite playmakers, a horde of spot-up shooters, a tried-and-true offensive system, and purposefully unconventional lineups. There has only been one Golden State since Curry ascended to MVP status in 2014; no other team, not even one that surrounded peak LeBron James with four shooters, could beat the Warriors at their own game. Now, it looks like there’s only one Houston. Aside from the Warriors, none of the other 28 teams are capable of producing a reasonable facsimile of the Rockets’ style and personnel.
Spirits were up in the Rockets’ locker room post-game, but the players passed on the opportunity to crow about the surprise upset. It was D’Antoni who delivered the only thing resembling bulletin board material by responding to Green’s suggestion earlier this week that the Rockets might not possess the league’s most attentive defense.
“Somebody said we don’t take it seriously, defense,” D’Antoni quipped. “Well, obviously [the Warriors] don’t take it seriously, either. We scored pretty good.”
While the jab was delivered with good-natured chuckles and with subsequent praise for the Warriors, it would have gone unthought and unsaid had D’Antoni’s strategic experimentation backfired. Indeed, he could only clap back because the Rockets’ blueprint—exceptional offense and passable defense—had held up, even if it was by the thinnest of margins.
All summer, analysts struggled to envision a scenario in which anyone besides Golden State claims the 2018 title. Every single SI.com and ESPN.com writer picked the Warriors as champions (as they should). On Tuesday, Houston, much like San Antonio last year, provided a reminder that even a constantly-improving juggernaut with designs on a dynasty can be vulnerable with the help of a few plot twists.
A star (Green) goes out. A role player (Tucker) goes off. A shot gets stuck on a fingertip for one beat too many. A sure win evaporates into a loss. And, perhaps, a lopsided big brother/little brother bully dynamic takes one step closer to becoming a rivalry.
If the Celtics’ painful poor fortune immediately dampened expectations for the East finals, the Rockets’ promising start should raise hopes out West. Harden, Paul and D’Antoni have plenty to prove, but their shared journey towards truly challenging the Warriors is off to a tantalizing start. Go ahead: Let Houston’s small ball dream help chase away the Hayward nightmare.