HANG TIME, Texas — Patrick Beverley knows a thing or two about rough crowds.
There were those throaty and angry Euro League road games earlier this season when he played in St. Petersburg, Russia. There the seasons in Ukraine and Greece when he was pelted with coins and played with a bloodied face.
And, of course, there were those mornings on the mean streets of his native Chicago when just getting to school was a challenge.
So even though he’ll be regarded as public enemy No. 1 for taking OKC’s Russell Westbrook out of the playoffs when he hits the floor for Game 5 against the Thunder tonight, Beverley says he’ll barely notice.
The rookie point guard has been the target of vitriol on Twitter and on call-in radio shows ever since his attempted steal and collision with Westbrook in the second quarter of Game 2 resulted in a torn medial collateral ligament and a seat on the sidelines for the rest of the playoffs.
Police even investigated a part-time worker for the Thunder who had tweeted a death threat.
“You know what, that type of pressure really doesn’t get me,” said Beverley. “With the type of pressure I used to growing up as a kid, walking to the corner store without having something happen to me, I could really care less about Twitter or anything like that. It was just hard trying to go to school some mornings growing up.”
Beverley has been a hit with Rockets fans since he joined the team in January and steadily began to get more and more playing time. With Jeremy Lin sidelined by a bruised chest muscle, he started Games 3 and 4 and could be back in the starting lineup tonight, depending on Lin’s status.
In an arena known as Loud City, the hoots and criticism could hit unprecedented decibel levels.
“It’s going to be fun,” Beverley said. “I’m looking forward to all the boos and stuff. I understand the crowd is going to be amped up and I hope that is going to get us more focused.
“Every time you catch the ball, you’re going to hear boos, so at least I get to release some of the pressure off (former Thunder member James Harden).”
The 6-foot-1 guard is averaging 12 points and four assists in the series, including 16 points and a key late blocked shot in the Rockets 105-103 win on Monday night. He laughs and shakes his head when reminiscing about the road game atmospheres in Europe, where the fans in Greece were especially hostile.
“I’ve been hit in the face with quarters and played with blood running down my face,” Beverley said. “It’s worse over there, but I’ve got a feeling it’s gonna be pretty bad (in OKC) too.”
. HOUSTON – Somewhere down the line, they might look back at it like a pencil mark drawn on the garage wall.
Perhaps one day they’ll pull it out of the back of the closet and shake their heads and smile at the memory of a favorite old pair of pants that no longer covers their ankles.
If the grand and glorious night in the future eventually comes when the confetti is falling, the triumphant music is blaring and commissioner Adam Silver is presenting the gold championship trophy up on the podium to their free agent acquisition Dwight Howard, they’ll know this is where it began.
The Rockets shot up like weeds through cracks in the sidewalk, tripping the Thunder 105-103, also bringing down the nagging notion that they didn’t have the right stuff to finish.
It’s said that you have to crawl before you learn to walk and the Rockets had the scabs on their knees to prove it, having fallen into an 0-3 hole largely because they tumbled over the cliff late in each of the previous two games.
But this was a night when OKC’s splendid splinter Kevin Durant couldn’t get another four-bounce prayer to be answered because Patrick Beverley stepped in to take a charge in the clutch, because the hair shirt that was Francisco Garcia itched and wouldn’t let K.D. get off a winning 3-pointer and because Omer Asik stepped out to cut off a desperate, driving Reggie Jackson the paint.
It was not a win that will likely change the outcome of a series in which the Thunder are simply the better team. However, it was the kind of victory that blazes a trail and lays a foundation for where the Rockets franchise wants to go.
“Everyone else might say it’s just one game for us,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “But for us, it was our first playoff win with this group and you can’t get two playoff wins until you get the one. You can’t feel what we need to feel up in Oklahoma City with a team that says, ‘We don’t want to come back here for Game 6.”
There are still plenty of pieces missing from the puzzle until anyone thinks of the Rockets as championship contenders and trying to land Godzilla in the form of Howard over the summer remains the top priority.
Yet you can watch Chandler Parsons, the second-round draft choice who should embarrass every other scouting department with cable TV and a DVD player, blossom into a player that can do three things — shoot, drive and simply play like hell — and see growth.
You can see Asik, stuck on the bench for years in Chicago, make the most of an opportunity by defending the rim and pulling down rebounds simply because a team showed belief in him.
You can see little Beverley finishing off a basketball season that began in St. Petersburg, Russia by treating every possession on offense and defense as if he were still the last line of defense in the Cold War.
The entire NBA has seen James Harden explode like a Fourth of July firecracker since October, when he hit the ground running in Houston by trade from OKC four days before the start of the season and became a first-time All-Star and a player who could carry the load and carry a team. Here was a night when Harden was simply horrid, shooting just 4-for-12 from the field, scoring just 15 points and setting a franchise playoff record with a discombobulated 10 turnovers.
Yet where the Rockets of a few months ago might never have been in the game in the fourth quarter against the Thunder with Harden struggling and might simply have crumbled without him making every big basket, every big play down the stretch, there were others all around filling in the gaps.
Harden knows that it’s a process that takes nurturing and patience. Barely a month into his rookie season in OKC, the Thunder were 1-12 and coach P.J. Carlesimo was replaced by Scott Brooks. They finished 23-59 that season.
A year later, the Thunder were 50-32 and got their first playoff taste of success, winning a pair of home games in a first-round series against the Lakers. The following season they reached the Western Conference finals and last year the NBA Finals.
There are never guarantees, but it usually is a process for a young team to learn how to compete, how to survive and how to thrive in the playoffs and it starts with something that might seem as insignificant as that very first win.
“It means a lot,” Harden said. “I think the previous two games, we let both of those slip away, having the lead late in the fourth quarter and just giving it away. So just to get the first one under our belt, now we have confidence going back to Oklahoma City and anything can happen.”
Someday, somewhere, somehow, if the plan keeps on coming together for these Rockets.
They’ll look at the pencil mark on the wall. They’ll smile at the pants that no longer fit. They’ll be able to remember exactly the night that it happened.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Forget about The Finals, for now.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have to worry about getting out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, now that we know they’ll have to finish the Houston Rockets without one half of their superstar dynamic duo. Russell Westbrook needs surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee and could be out anywhere from four to six weeks, depending on how quickly he recovers.
“We hope [he comes back in the playoffs],” Kevin Durant said. “Our firs thing is to make sure he gets healthy and gets that knee back right. We’re not trying to rush him or bring him back ahead of schedule. We want to make sure he’s healthy and his knee is right. That’s our only concern right now.”
There is a time frame that would allow Westbrook to return later in the playoffs, perhaps late in the conference finals or the start of The Finals.
But again, the Thunder will have to make it that far without the league’s resident iron man. Love him or hate him, no one can question Westbrook’s durability, before now. He hadn’t missed a game during his five-year career, having played in 394 consecutive regular season games and all 45 playoff games the Thunder have played during that same span.
But he won’t be on the floor for Saturday night, joining a long list of game changers who are watching this NBA postseason from the bench of or beyond due to injury. Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Amar’e Stoudemire, David Lee and Danny Granger are all watching their teams toil without them in this postseason. They all serve as human reminders for their peers that your next false step could be your last, of this season.
But none of those aforementioned stars plays on a team that had the supposed inside tack to get back to the conference finals and then The Finals, for that rematch with the Miami Heat. Westbrook’s injury opens the door in the Western Conference for the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers or Memphis Grizzlies and the Denver Nuggets or Golden State Warriors to start eyeballing the calendar in early June for a possible trip to The Finals of their own. Shoot, even the Los Angeles Lakers, down 2-0 to the Spurs in their first round series, can start dreaming about doing the unthinkable.
Simply put, the West is wide open now.
“Kevin Durant needs to take the Carmelo Anthony approach,” said ESPN analyst Jalen Rose. “Take around 25-30 shots per game, his team already has a 2-0 lead. The one thing about professional sports, and life for that matter, when opportunity knocks, you have to seize it. So trust me, all of the teams in the Western Conference, their ears perked up today. They feel like they have chance to advance.”
The Thunder earned the No. 1 seed in the West this season but entered the postseason with plenty of worthy challengers who did not plan on the fragile nature of things to swing in their favor with Westbrook’s injury. No offense to Reggie Jackson, Kevin Martin, Derek Fisher or anyone else in a Thunder uniform, but it’s Durant and Russell Westbrook who do the headlining. In fact, the Thunder have never had to work for an extended period of time without both of their stars in the lineup.
Trying to navigate these rough playoff waters with only one half of that devastating combination sounds more like mission impossible for a Thunder team that, truth be told, spent much of this season learning how to operate without the former third member of their superstar crew, Rockets All-Star guard James Harden.
Thunder GM Sam Presti, coach Scott Brooks and Durant all did their part to rally the troops today after the news spread of the severity of Westbrook’s injury.
“Our team as a whole, we’ve got a resilient group of guys, a lot of character within that locker room and a group that enjoys playing together and has been through some adversities over the last several years that they’ve been together.” Presti said. “We’d expect them to adjust, come together and have different guys step in and play well collectively. Once we were able to gather all of the necessary information and everything was accumulated, it was an easy decision for our medical team.”
The decision on how to play in Westbrook’s absence won’t be nearly as easy. The Rockets’ defensive strategy shifts now from worrying about picking between two lethal performers to focusing solely on Durant and daring that Thunder supporting cast to beat them. Westbrook averaged 24 points and seven assists through those first two games while also serving, as always, as the Thunder’s primary facilitator.
Jackson’s been solid in spurts of relief this season. Doing it daily, however, could be more than he’s capable of handling. And even if does acquit himself well in the first round, either Chris Paul or Mike Conley and their teams, will be waiting on the Thunder’s replacement for Westbrook in the next round.
Durant insists that the Thunder’s “Next Man Step Up” mantra applies in this case, just as it does any other.
“We have good depth on our team,” Durant said. “Reggie Jackson is ready for the moment. He has been working his tail off ever since he got here. So he’s ready for this. We just have to rally behind him and know that we have to give him confidence, because he’s going to make mistakes like everybody else. But we just have to keep encouraging him.”
All the courage and encouragement in the world won’t make Jackson into Westbrook. Their is certainly survival after losing a superstar. The Lakers (Kobe) and Celtics (Rondo) are proof of that much.
But we’re talking about a team focused on competing for championships, not just surviving.
“It doesn’t matter who we throw out there. We’re a 15-man team and we still are, even with Russell being hurt,” Brooks said. “We’re a 15-man team and everybody believes in each other and that’s what you have to do. You don’t win in this league with one player. You don’t win with five or six players, you win it with your team. We talk about that and we believe in the things that we talk about. We don’t jus throw it out because it looks cool on a t-shirt or a billboard. We believe in each other, we believe in what we do and we take pride in it and we’re proud about what we do.”
We’re all going to find out exactly what the Thunder do when they are forced to play a man down.
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The playoffs are here. And to get you ready, we’ve got statistical nuggets for each series, courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.
Western Conference basketball was faster and more efficient than Eastern Conference hoops. We’re sure to see three high-paced series in the first round, because six of the eight West playoff teams ranked in the top 10 in pace, with the only exceptions being the Clippers and Grizzlies, who will face each other.
Pace won’t be the only reason scoring will be higher in the West. Seven of the eight West playoff teams ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency.
Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank) OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank) DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank) NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank) The league averaged 94.4 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 103.1 points scored per 100 possessions.
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Let the singing of the praises begin. The Los Angeles Lakers are in the playoffs and in this strange season, that’s no small feat.
May it start with Dwight Howard. He was demanded to be dominant without Kobe Bryant by analysts such as Magic Johnson and more, and for those two must-have games he delivered: 42 points, 35 rebounds and seven blocks while playing 82 of 96 minutes.
“Everybody counted us out, but one thing that I told the guys tonight was that we’ve been through so much as a team this year, from the injuries to the rumors and everything that has happened,” Howard said after the Lakers rallied to defeat Houston 99-95 in overtime and pass the Rockets for the seventh seed. “It could have made us separate from each other, but we stayed strong, stayed together and we won for each other tonight. So we’re happy that we’re in the playoffs, but we’re not done yet.”
Next up for a golf clap is coach Mike D’Antoni. He’s absorbed tidal waves of criticism since taking over — including from right here — as the fans’ distant second choice to jilted Phil Jackson. Sure, Kobe’s season-ending Achilles injury might have finally forced D’Antoni to bend and feed his two bigs, Dwight and Pau Gasol, as so many have screamed for months, but he did.
Dwight’s 30 shot attempts over the last two games are his highest two-game total since March 6-8. At the other end, he reminded us why he was the three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Orlando before the back injury last season derailed a shot at four in a row. His two defensive gems against a driving James Harden late in the game were marvelous.
Gasol, dogged by injuries and an intellectual basketball divide with D’Antoni, came through in the last two games with 24 points, 36 rebounds and 13 assists, with a number of nifty passes going to Dwight.
The bottom line is the Lakers were written off and easily ridiculed. On Jan. 2 they were 15-16 and in 11th place. On Jan. 24 the Lakers hit rock-bottom, in 12th place at 17-25. Since then, through the death of beloved owner Jerry Buss and injuries to Gasol and Nash and Metta World Peace and now Kobe, they finished 28-12.
With the season on the line every single day in April, the Lakers won eight of nine.
“Obviously I’m really proud the way for just a month they had to just play in elimination-like games every night, and I think Steve Nash said it best, or Dwight, I forget which one said it, but after they [Houston's Chandler Parsons] threw in the 3 to tie the game and it went into overtime, he said, ‘It’s been hard all year, this stuff’s happened all year, so why was this any different, and it’s not going to be easy and let’s go out and win it,’ and they did.
“The great thing about it was everybody contributed, somebody did something that we got the win, because you can’t shoot 36 percent and make it easy, it’s going to be tough. So we didn’t shoot the ball well, but other than that I thought we had good shots and I thought the guys obviously played hard and we played well defensively again.”
It has been a team thing. Steve Blake has been off the charts with back-to-back 20-plus-point games. Antawn Jamison had 31 points and 10 rebounds, and shot 5-for-10 from beyond the arc.
While Utah’s loss at Memphis just before the Lakers tipped off against the Rockets got them in the playoffs, the gutsy win made sure they’d snag the unforeseen seventh seed and avoid Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Blake said. “I’m just proud to be a Laker.”
Now these Lakers will take their cuts, with the pressure eased and nothing to lose with Kobe on crutches, against a disciplined and proficient San Antonio Spurs team. However, it is a Spurs team that limps into the postseason and isn’t immune to an early postseason upset.
In this strange season, anything, it seems, is possible.
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The start of the NBA playoffs is just days away and that’s always a signal for superstars to ready themselves to step into the spotlight on the game’s biggest stage.
It’s also the time for those unsuspecting guys, the unsung contributors on playoff teams from throughout the league, to raise their level of play with their respective seasons on the line. We like to call them Hang Time’s Playoff Wild Cards, guys who will impact their teams and potentially the outcomes of their respective team’s first round series.
The Starting Five of HT’s Playoff Wild Cards Team (and just like Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, we don’t get caught up in positions. We’re going with the best five Wild Cards):
JEREMY LIN, PG, HOUSTON ROCKETS
By now Rockets fans know that the star point guard they snatched away from New York last summer is not the same guy who inspired Linsanity. What they’ve got is a guy who is much steadier and just as productive, statistically, through 82 games with the Rockets (13.4 ppg, 6.0 apg and 3.0 rpg) as he was in 25 games with the Knicks (14.6, 6.2 and 3.1). What makes Lin a Wild Card is knowing that he’s capable of getting on the kind of roll that created the Linsanity phenomenon. The right matchup in the playoffs could be all he needs to morph back into the player we saw during his magical ride in New York.
DANNY GREEN, SG, SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Green is easily overlooked on a team with superstars like Tony Parker and even Tim Duncan who are often foolishly overlooked by the masses when the conversation turns to the true superstars in the league. What cannot (and should not) be overlooked is Green’s season-long penchant for taking and making big shots, not to mention his 43 percent shooting (for the second straight season, mind you) from beyond the 3-point line. Green is the beneficiary of defensive attention being paid to Parker and Duncan, and he takes full advantage of defender’s inattention to detail all the time.
JEFF GREEN, SF, BOSTON CELTICS
If the Jeff Green that showed up after All-Star weekend is the same Jeff Green that shows up for the playoffs, the Celtics will be one of the postseason’s most dangerous lower seeds. Green has averaged 17.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 2.7 apg in 34.1 minutes a night since the break (compared to the 10.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg and 1.0 apg he posted in 24.6 minutes before the break). Green has the size, athleticism and skill on both ends of the floor to battle elite small forwards. The Celtics need him to do it every night in the postseason.
JIMMY BUTLER, SF, CHICAGO BULLS
In a season when Derrick Rose‘s supporting cast has been under scrutiny every single night, Butler has shined in his opportunities to contribute, particularly on the defensive side of things. He’s the battled the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and more than held his own in those matchups. Some young players struggle with a sudden increase in minutes, many of them spent in different roles. But not Butler. The more he’s played the better he’s played, giving Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau yet another rugged contributor on a team filled with them. If Butler continues to score the way he has recently (15.6 ppg on 53 percent shooting in his last five games), he’ll have an even greater impact than expected in the playoffs.
COREY BREWER, SF, DENVER NUGGETS
This Wild Card thing is easy for Brewer. He does it daily for a talented and deep Nuggets team that has thrived all season by unleashing that depth on the opposition. What makes Brewer so effective in this role is his non-stop motor, his activity on both ends of the floor, his ability to shoot it from distance and the fact that he finishes at the rim and in transition. It’s pretty remarkable considering he doesn’t appear to have gained a single pound since middle school (we’re joking here). Brewer averages 12.2 ppg without any plays being called for him … ever. He should have “Wild Card” stitched across the back of his jersey instead of “Brewer.”
HANG TIME, Texas — Well, the Hornets are changing their name to the Pelicans next season. Maybe the Rockets just wanted to get in on the excitement and fun of their own identity switch.
The Houston Doormen?
The Rockets couldn’t have been more accommodating to the lowly Suns if they had carried their luggage, rolled out the red carpet for the Warriors and in the process set themselves up to fall through a trapdoor in the playoff race. Houston could have taken a step closer to clinching the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference on Monday night, but now face a must-win game on Wednesday against the Lakers in L.A. to avoid the No. 8 spot.
It is the story of a young team, in fact the youngest in the entire league, not coming into a game against a losing team with the proper sense of urgency and respect. The Rockets allowed the Suns to beat them down the floor most of the night for fastbreak buckets and also pound the ball inside in the paint.
You could chalk it up to former Rockets Luis Scola and Goran Dragic wanting to get in their licks against their former team. Scola showed off all of his veteran wiles, hitting 11 of his 16 shots for 26 points and 15 rebounds, while Dragic piled up 21 points and handed out 14 assists.
Houston’s James Harden shot 5-for-18 and finished with just 16 points, Jeremy Lin shot 8-for-19 and the Rockets turned the ball over 16 times.
Give the Suns, who’ve been accused of tanking games, credit for playing their final home game of the season with pride. But give the blame to a Rockets that was a half-step slow from the opening tip and never played as if their there was anything on the line. Which, of course, there was.
Now the Rockets must win against the desperate Lakers on Wednesday and have the Warriors lose at Portland in order to claim the No. 6 seed. If both the Rockets and Warriors win, Houston will finish seventh and face No. 2 seed San Antonio.
If the Rockets and Warriors both lose, Houston will finish eighth and open the playoffs against No. 1 seed Oklahoma City, a matchup with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that nobody wants.
If the Lakers beat the Rockets, the Warriors are sixth regardless and L.A. will finish seventh and play the Spurs.
In that case, you have to figure the Houston Doormen will at least have earned a nice tip.
Here’s a look at some of the more important playoff implications in Friday night’s games:
LAKERS (vs. Golden State, 10:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): With the battle for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference down to the final three games, the Lakers (42-37) face a Golden State team that is currently seeded sixth, just a half-game up on the Rockets … A Lakers win and a Jazz loss to the Timberwolves would put L.A. up two games with two to play … Kobe Bryant scored 47 points while playing all 48 minutes in Wednesday night’s 113-106 win in Portland … The Lakers are up 2-1 in the season series.
JAZZ (vs. Minnesota, 9:30 p.m. ET, League Pass): The Jazz (41-38) have lost control of the race with the Lakers for the No. 8 seed and can’t lose focus in the first of consecutive games against the wounded Timberwolves … Utah leads season series 2-0 … Utah needs to win out and hope for an L.A. loss … A short bench missing Enes Kanter, Marvin Williams and Alec Burks was costly in Wednesday night’s loss to OKC … This could be the final home game for Jazz free-agents-to-be Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.
THUNDER (at Portland, 10 p.m. ET, NBA TV): Thunder (58-21) show no inclination to take their foot off the pedal in the fight for No. 1 seed in the West … Holding tie-breaker over the Spurs, they now control the race … After whipping the Warriors on Thursday night — and getting plenty of rest for the starters — OKC wraps up a back-to-back and closes out road schedule … Thunder are 3-0 against the Blazers this season, who went flat in a loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night … Three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant (28.3 ppg.) says he’s OK giving up title to Carmelo Anthony.
SPURS (vs. Sacramento, 8:30 ET, League Pass): Even if the Spurs (57-21) win out, they need OKC to stumble once to reclaim the top spot in the West … But do they really care? Tony Parker is in a tug o’ war with coachGregg Popovich over whether he’ll play … Parker sat out Wednesday’s loss at Denver with a sore neck and other assorted ailments and Pop says that championship teams must be able to win on the road anyway … Boris Diaw’s back injury puts DeJuan Blair back into the rotation and could slide Kawhi Leonard into minutes at power forward … They lead series with Kings 3-0. (more…)
HOUSTON — Maybe it was fitting that James Harden’s shot kicked off the rim, took a bounce and received an unintentional assist from Jermaine O’Neal that carried the Rockets into the playoffs.
It was Harden himself who practically fell out of the sky right into the laps of the Rockets just four days before the start of the season that began the return to respectability and relevance.
“I didn’t know who was on the team. I didn’t know what was going on,” Harden said. “I was still kind of shocked. Weeks went by and a month went by. We kind of gained confidence in one another that we can go out and compete with anybody in this league. It’s been that way through this whole entire season and now we’re in the playoffs.”
The Rockets are back in the postseason for the first time in four years, having spent the past three springs with their noses pressed up against the window pane, tantalizingly close and yet locked out of the fun. For three straight years — with win totals of 42, 43 and 34 (in lockout-shortened 2012) — they had been the last team to miss out on the playoffs. Or took the best record into the draft lottery. Any way that you said it, the result was simply frustrating.
While team owner Leslie Alexander has been steadfast to “dive” for a chance at the bonanza offered by the draft lottery, general manager Daryl Morey has been more frantic than a one-armed juggler of chain saws to make and remake the roster again and again and again. It was that constant turmoil that led to exasperation by former coach Rick Adelman and an eventual parting of the ways. It has been an ongoing process that still puts constant new challenges into the path of coach Kevin McHale in his second season.
Even now, the Rockets are a laboratory project still in development. Houston is the NBA’s youngest team with an average age of 24.9 years and opened the season as the most inexperienced NBA team in the shot-clock era, based on minutes played.
The Rockets are the sixth-youngest team in history to reach the playoffs. The Thunder teams of 2010 and 2011, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, are the youngest ever. Next in line are the Trail Blazers of 2009, led by Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Bulls of 2006 with Luol Deng and Ben Gordon and the Hawks of 2008, led by Joe Johnson and Al Horford.
Despite Harden’s rapid rise to the league’s elite level, his first appearance in the All-Star Game and rank among the league’s top five scorers along with the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Durant, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the Rockets are still greener than most young sprouts of spring. Harden has been to the playoffs the past three seasons and went to The Finals last year with OKC, but is still only 23. Point guard Jeremy Lin is 24. Center Omer Asik is 26, but his is only his third year in the league and the first that he’s played starter’s minutes.
Though a 13-6 record over the past six weeks has made the return to the playoffs seem inevitable, it was not made official until Utah lost to the Thunder shortly after the Rockets beat Phoenix on Tuesday night.
“I actually didn’t think I would be excited,” Lin said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going for the six seed.’ Now that it’s really here, I’m actually really excited because no one really gave us a chance going into the season that we’d be in the playoffs.”
The Rockets have been a franchise stuck in a rut, mired in mediocrity since the glory days of their back-to-back championships in 1994 and 1995. While this is now their 18th winning record since the 1992-93 season — only the Spurs and Lakers have more at 19 — they have had precious little playoff success. In fact, the Rockets have won only a single playoff series — vs. Portland in 2009 — since 1997 when some of the names on the backs of the jerseys read: Olajuwon, Drexler and Barkley.
There was always hope and unfulfilled promise during the eras of Steve Francis, then Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. But never the kind of results that were expected.
So when the wheeler-dealer Morey was able to land Harden on the eve of this season, it was the first step in his long held plan to put a franchise-type player on the court to build around and then supplement with the likes of Lin, Asik and Chandler Parsons.
In the process, the Rockets have turned into a fast-paced, 3-point shooting, prolific offensive club that most often produces the most entertaining games of any given night on NBA LeaguePass.
This will all lead into a summer of trying to land another big-name free agent, another All-Star caliber player, who can vault the Rockets back onto the level of title contenders.
But first things first and that was Harden’s shot that bounced high off the rim, O’Neal’s unofficial assist by goaltending and finally the Rockets taking an initial step back into the playoff conversation.
Warriors coach Mark Jackson has been a believer in his team all season and that faith has been realized now in the form of a team that won six of its past eight games to strut into the playoffs, as opposed to slipping through the back door.
“We celebrated, and rightfully so,” Jackson told reporters afterwards, fighting back the tears that flowed in a reportedly emotional and raucous postgame locker room celebration. “People questioned us, and they should have. People doubted us, and they should have. But they underestimated the heart, the desire, the work ethic, the determination, the willingness to put in the time and then the favor of God.”
Much like fellow Tuesday night playoff clincher Houston, the Warriors have arrived to the surprise of many. They’ve done it without the hype-train that has accompanied the Rockets’ rise. There’s no James Harden or Jeremy Lin headliner on this Warriors team (although an All-Star like David Lee and shooting star like Stephen Curry certainly deserve whatever plaudits come their way).
The Warriors’ front office doesn’t have a figure like Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, the Wizard of Advanced Metrics Oz,to point to. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has gone about his business without a ton of fanfare. He’s plotting the course properly. The Warriors roster is sound. And they are built not just for a momentary playoff flash this time, but for a sustained period of playoff contention that Warriors fans have not experienced before.
“We should enjoy this,” Lacob said after Tuesday’s playoff-clinching win. “We’ve got to celebrate the little moments, too. Every step counts. This is an important first step for this franchise and this ownership group and for all of these guys and the coaches.”
How soon the Warriors take that second step remains to be seen. The playoffs provide all sort of opportunities for upstarts to attempt to “shock the world.”
One thing seems certain, though, and that is the Warriors shouldn’t have to endure another six-year wait between playoff trips.