LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The experiment was formalized on Feb. 6. In a crowded hallway at Staples Center, a couple of hours before his team would face the Los Angeles Lakers and 34 days before the N.B.A. season would be suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, Houston Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni announced that he was going small.
In some ways, D’Antoni had nothing to lose. He alluded to the fact that his contract was expiring at the end of the season. Besides, he had never been afraid to spice things up over the course of his long and eventful coaching career, and here was another opportunity to do something different.
“We just have a weird kind of team,” D’Antoni said at the time, “and we’re trying to figure out how to play them the best we can, and this is it.”
With P.J. Tucker, who is 6-foot-5, manning the center position, and Russell Westbrook feasting on open lanes to the basket, the Rockets defeated the Lakers that night, 121-111. Still, early reviews were mixed: Was Houston’s approach just a novelty? Would opponents figure out how to adjust? Would bigger teams grind them down in a grueling playoff series?
Seven months later, another litmus test awaits. After needing seven games to survive their first-round series against the fifth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets will play the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, with Game 1 set for Friday night. So much has changed since these two teams met in February. But the overarching themes are the same.
“I never worry about the other team,” Westbrook said Wednesday after the Rockets closed out his former team with a chaotic 104-102 win. “When we play the way we need to play, it’s tough to beat us.”
The Rockets remain one of the league’s great curiosities, as innovative as they are polarizing: so many 3-pointers, so much dribbling, so many attempts to draw fouls. Houston was treating the midrange shot like kryptonite long before other teams began recognizing its inherent inefficiencies, and countless guards have spent their summers working to apply James Harden’s shifty step-back moves to their own games.
But a return to the N.B.A. finals has eluded the Rockets since 1995, and so much was at stake for them in their series against the Thunder.
It was a matchup that offered a referendum of sorts on the blockbuster off-season deal the two teams made a little over a year ago. After the Thunder traded Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers, Harden pushed for the Rockets to trade for Westbrook, his former teammate in Oklahoma City. In exchange for Westbrook, the Thunder received Chris Paul, two future first-round picks and the rights to swap two other future first-round picks.
The immediate sense was that the Thunder were engaging in a rebuild — so many picks! — and that Paul would eventually be sent elsewhere. Instead, he played at an All-Star level while mentoring his younger teammates, and the Thunder exceeded expectations before pushing Houston to the brink here at Walt Disney World.
Make no mistake: The Rockets had everything to lose. Falling in the first round — to their trade partner, no less — would have been devastating for a team that, just two years ago, was one win from a conference title. Houston mortgaged a good chunk of its future to acquire Westbrook, and even for an organization accustomed to bold moves, the deal carried with it a whiff of desperation.
After missing the first four games of the series with a strained quadriceps muscle, Westbrook labored through Games 5 and 6 before finishing with 20 points and nine rebounds in Game 7.
“We dug deep,” he said.
In a twist, the Rockets won with their defense. Harden, who otherwise struggled, scoring 17 points while shooting 4 of 15 from the field, compensated in the game’s late stages by closing out on the Thunder’s Luguentz Dort and blocking his 3-point shot. Over the course of the evening, the little-known Dort had elevated himself into a cult hero by playing the game of his life, scoring 30 points while defending Harden for long stretches. But he could only watch as Harden screamed to celebrate his game-saving block.
“I think James’s defense has gotten a lot better,” D’Antoni said. “He’s been locked in, and I think he knows that for us to win at a good clip, the defense has to be there.”
Harden said the blocked shot was one of the highlights of his career.
“Definitely,” he said, “because it’s cool to get 40 or 50 points, or be shooting the ball extremely well. Obviously, we all want to do that. But just to get the recognition and the payoff when it counts on the defensive end, and show that I’ve been engaged and locked in — for it to show in a clutch moment means a lot.”
The Lakers, the conference’s top seed, have not played since Saturday, when they closed out their first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5. Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ 6-foot-10 power forward, averaged 29.8 points and 9.4 rebounds against Portland. By the time he and his teammates take the court against Houston, they will have had nearly a week off. The Rockets will not be similarly rested.
“It’s a good thing we have a young team,” D’Antoni said.
He was being sarcastic: The Rockets are the oldest team in the league and, for all practical purposes, the smallest. On Thursday, D’Antoni was asked whether Tucker would defend Davis or LeBron James.
“P will be on Anthony Davis, and J will be on LeBron,” D’Antoni told reporters, deadpan. “Lame joke.”
After making it through one round with small ball, D’Antoni could afford to laugh. Now an even bigger test awaits his team.