(Sports of The Times)
The Houston Rockets came back from the Game 1 dead, discarded their slow-motion offense and put on a ferocious display in Game 2. They shoved around the artistes known as the Golden State Warriors and claimed a 127-105 victory Wednesday night.
In truth, you could see this coming. For two days, Rockets coaches, players, their spouses and perhaps their children in elementary school cafeterias talked intently of playing intensely, faster, harder, with more force. The Rockets won 65 games during the regular season, and coach and players acknowledged that they came out for the first game playing as if their stomachs were knotted.
“We got a little rattled, and we can’t do that,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.
Not to worry. On Wednesday night, I watch James Harden, the Rockets’ cool cat glider of a superstar guard, walk onto the court to practice, his black hoodie and that bushy black beard calling to mind a Middle-earth wizard. He shoots a while, scoops up a basketball and retreats to the bench. Cradling that ball like a baby, he listens to Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar and Z-Ro, his head bobbing, his body moving this way and that, his index fingers wagging in unison. Then he leans forward and, still seated, dribbles Harlem Globetrotter-style, tiny pat-a-cake dribbles, then rat-a-tat big ones between his legs, and then a crazy weave, the whole time grooving to the music.
He is in a world of his own. A police officer stands 8 feet away and watches, mesmerized. Harden hops up, lays down a dance move in those red sneakers of his, and runs and jumps and throws down an emphatic windmill dunk.
Just like that, his teammates respond with ecstatic, ferocious dunks. I point this out to an usher and venture a wild guess that they are pretty pumped up.
And they are.
Harden’s game, his teammates’ games, look different this evening. Harden offers fewer crossover dances; no, no, ándale, baby. Come on, we’re going to the hoop. So he takes one graceful-muscular layup after another. And then he and the complementary players start hitting jumpers over the Warriors.
Let me rephrase that: They do not miss. P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon had wandered in the valley of the shadow in Game 1. This time they shot a combined 11 for 15 from 3-point land, including a few launched from near the Budweiser sign at the scorer’s table. They played bruising, bounce-off-my-biceps defense.
Harden came to the first-game news conference in a black Nehru get-up, offset with high concept pink patches. For Game 2, he appeared in a Chinese batik pattern shirt. His affect is Zen; his mindset more primal.
Did you see a difference tonight, James?
He leans and intones softly: “The first game we were at a 70. Tonight we’re at a 95. It’s about aggression.”
We can’t allow ourselves to get comfortable, he says. Otherwise, Golden State will run and spin and “pick us apart.”
One of the fascinations of this series, and the season that preceded it, was watching D’Antoni, 67, reinvent himself and his team. He ran the Phoenix Suns for many years and became known as the original Mr. Beautiful Basketball, Señor Shoot the Ball in Seven Seconds or Less. No one could lay a better claim to being the father of our modern and oh-so-fluid game.
Now he oversees a team built around two terrific guards, Harden and Chris Paul, who dribble and deke and juke and break your ankles and don’t worry if it takes 20 seconds to launch a shot. After the first game, some muttered darkly that D’Antoni Ball had become static and almost ugly. (OK, I confess I was among this questioning horde.)
The first query after Wednesday’s handsome victory went like this: Was this about adjustments?
“Oh yeah,” D’Antoni said. “We went from the wide-open California offense to the triple threat. I mean, we changed everything up.”
A few reporters typed fast, hot tip, baby. Then they realized the coach was being sardonic. It was the same car; the coach and his mechanics had tightened a few belts and lug nuts.
“We’re very comfortable about who we are, and we can beat anybody anywhere at any time,” D’Antoni said. “Some people might not like it, you know? Hey, sorry.”
And what of the beautiful Warriors and all of their future Hall of Famers? Stephen Curry had talked of getting greedy and trying to take two victories on hostile ground in Houston. That would have left this much-anticipated series stillborn.
Instead the Warriors came out in a fog. Kevin Durant passed to no one. Curry, too, threaded a bounce pass that was snared by fans sitting in the first row. The Warriors piled turnovers high in the first quarter. The score was close, but portents were poor.
Curry returned recently from a long convalescence for a knee sprain, and while he is clever, he’s not yet his dancing, loose-limbed terror self. He’s getting poor lift on his jump shot, and his lateral movement is locked in mud. Professional sport at the highest level is brutally Darwinian: Show a hint of physical impairment and the lions quickly circle.
It seemed they tried to isolate on you and attack off the dribble?
Curry hiked his eyebrows. “Surprise, surprise.” As he had said the previous night, in the playoffs, if you can move, you keep playing.
Later, a reporter asked coach Steve Kerr how much of Curry’s problems were attributable to that knee. The coach paused, not wanting to let the lions in on the answer.
“Oh, 13.7 percent.” He smiled. “Sorry.”
The series shifts to Oakland, California, and its ravening crowd for Game 3. It’s a chess game, Curry says, and now the next move is up to the Warriors. He has been to the last three NBA finals and won two championships, so he sounded short of disconsolate. “The cliché is that we came here and we did what we’re supposed to do, and it’s 1-1 and yada yada yada.”
Yada yada yada sounds cool. I’ll put my finals plans in the freezer and await the next countermove.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.