Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni has been asked multiple times about Eric Gordon's recent performance over the last week, and D'Antoni has leaned on a familiar refrain.
"You'd be looking at a different coach without him."
D'Antoni's joke comes with more than a modicum of truth. Gordon turned in a 21-point performance vs. Oklahoma City in Game 7, and he's combined for 47 points in two games against the Lakers. The Rockets need a third offensive weapon to survive the Western Conference playoffs, especially as Russell Westbrook struggles. Gordon has more than delivered of late.
Gordon's impressive stretch shouldn't be a total shock considering his previous playoff success in Houston, though his recent play is at least a relative surprise given Gordon's frustrating 2019-20. The Indiana product played in just nine games to start the year before undergoing knee surgery in November, and Gordon subsequently battled a slate of shin and ankle injuries after the calendar turned into 2020. Gordon dropped 50 on Utah on Jan. 27, marking the highlight of his season. The rest of his year has been a hair short of disaster.
It took Gordon a few games to find his footing after making his bubble debut on Aug. 12, but of late, he's emerged as a dynamic two-way weapon for D'Antoni and Co. Gordon is attacking close-outs with abandon, and his three-point stroke is rounding into form after a brutal regular season. Gordon is an impressive Swiss Army knife at his best, able to beat defenses both at the rim and beyond the arc. James Harden's supporting cast is littered with stationary shooters and a de-facto point center in Westbrook. Gordon's versatility has been crucial to Houston's success.
"I always have confidence. I’m always going to score the basketball," Gordon said after Game 1. "With my skillset, I can always get to the rim, I can always knock down shots. But if shots are not going down, you got to have another effect on the game."
Gordon's offensive ability is no secret after 12 seasons and 11,000 regular-season points. His defensive impact flies under the radar. D'Antoni has called Gordon one of the best on-ball defenders in basketball, a moniker that's been put to the test against Los Angeles. Gordon is tasked with being the primary defender on LeBron James, and he's largely held up his end of the bargain thus far. Stopping James is a near impossibility. But the three-time champion can be battled, and Gordon made his life difficult in Game 1. Gordon's defense on King James could decide the series.
"What [Gordon] has that we like is strength, just being able to hold his ground," D'Antoni said on Monday. "He is a terrific defender against anybody. He’s one of our better defenders, without a doubt.”
It's unclear which version of Gordon we'll get in Game 3, especially if Westbrook continues to struggle. But it's hard not be encouraged by Gordon's performance of late. He's looked like a true third weapon in recent nights, and his two-way ability is crucial to Houston's Finals hopes. Continuing his Game 1 and Game 2 effort is critical for the Rockets as they look to dethrone the top seed in the Western Conference.