Culture / Sporting Life

Mike D’Antoni Channels Jeremy Lin, Crushes the Ignorant Doubters: Rockets Savior Still Stands Up for his Former Point Guard

BY // 02.20.17

Mike D’Antoni dusted himself off, shrugged off all the ignorant doubters and went about proving he’s really what he’s always been. One of the best basketball coaches on the planet and a rare innovator of the game. D’Antoni only needed to look to one of his favorite players of all time for inspiration for the transformation.

Jeremy Lin crawled back from the basketball abyss, having been discounted, dismissed and disrespected by coaches and organizations who refused to recognize his real skills. Lin suffered through almost every basketball indignity imaginable — and still never stopped coming, never stopped fighting, never stopped believing in himself. When you’re the architect of a league-changing offensive system, the man who allowed Steve Nash to become a superstar, you probably don’t expect to have to do the same.

But like Lin, D’Antoni is a little different — and anything outside of the norm tends to make sports executives and their fawning media acolytes uneasy. So D’Antoni had to wait and see if he’d ever get another chance to coach an NBA team as a horde of much less qualified coaches landed jobs. He needed Houston Rockets billionaire owner Leslie Alexander to get fed up with Daryl Morey hiring mediocre coaches that the general manager could easily control — and force Morey to reach out to the sidelined maestro of Seven Seconds or Less.

And now, of course, D’Antoni and the Rockets exit the All-Star break with the fourth-best record in the NBA. More remarkably, he’s done the near impossible, and scrubbed James Harden’s tattered reputation.

A lot of revisionist history is now going on in the media, with Houston reporters trying to claim that no one saw this coming. Which is absurd. Anyone who truly knows basketball, or understands how misused Jeremy Lin has been, knew this was as predictable as having a surprise twist in an M. Night Shyamalan movie. I wrote about D’Antoni being a brilliant hire last May and I was hardly alone in that thinking. Almost anyone who rates Jeremy Lin fairly knew that Mike D’Antoni stood out as an inspired choice.

Anyone who watched Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix — or with Jeremy Lin — should have known he was a great coach.

D’Antoni found a way to utilize Lin in the right manner on the fly, in the middle of a season. That takes some coaching chops — and a fearlessness. D’Antoni does what’s right for his team from a basketball perspective — convention, doubters and the egos of minted stars like Carmelo Anthony be damned. He did it in Phoenix with Steve Nash. He did it in New York with Lin. He tried to do it in Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant. And now, he’s doing it in Houston by turning Harden into a point guard, knowing that this particular star would never stop demanding the ball at all times — so why not let him start with it.

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D’Antoni makes almost anything work. He’s so fooled Harden into believing he’s a distributor that the Rockets’ gunner was by the least selfish player in Sunday night’s All-Star Game, racking up 12 assists and seldom looking for his own shot.

But even now that he has his best team since those league-changing Phoenix Suns squads that deserved to win a championship, D’Antoni still looks at the emergence of Jeremy Lin, Linsanity and his role in it as one of his ultimate career highlights. The coach has referenced Linsanity fairly often during his first year in Houston.

“I’m really proud of Lin and what he’s done,” D’Antoni says. “And it couldn’t happen to a better person. That’s why you coach, for moments like that, for people like him.”

D’Antoni does not just admire Jeremy Lin’s perseverance. He channeled it for his own comeback. Mike D’Antoni was never cut on Christmas. He never played for coaches like Kevin McHale and Byron Scott, who marginalized him, sometimes seemingly out of spite. He’s never had to fight an avalanche of stereotypes and biased thinking simply because of his race.

D’Antoni has this way of handling the media that’s secretly brilliant. He can be sarcastic, but subtly enough, that it goes over some people’s heads and never truly ventures into full-blown biting marks.

But the 65-year-old D’Antoni did have to wonder if he’d ever get a chance after that would-be Los Angeles Lakers dream team of Nash, Kobe and Dwight Howard crumbled right along with Nash’s back. And like Lin in Charlotte, and when he hasn’t been injured this season in Brooklyn, D’Antoni has seized his second chance with a fierce passion.

Harden has not really changed. But D’Antoni’s found a way to make his ball-dominating ways work. Whether the Rockets will ever get another superstar to come to play with Harden still remains in huge question even with D’Antoni. This situation is much more limited than the one D’Antoni built in Phoenix around Nash.

Anthony Davis just watched another superstar fall out of the sky to join him in New Orleans, but it’s fair to wonder if Harden will ever get (or allow) a true co-star in Houston, which keeps D’Antoni fenced in.

Lin’s situation in Brooklyn is equally limited — by the constraints of the offense first-time head coach Kenny Atkinson insists on and the lack of talent around him. But Lin still makes the most of it when he’s on the court.

It’s what D’Antoni and Lin do.

Lin’s Protective Mentor

It’s been years since D’Antoni’s coached Lin, but he still tries to look out for him. The coach who is saving the Rockets defends Lin at every opportunity — something that’s highly ironic considering the history of this franchise’s treatment of Lin.

When a few TV types in the Houston press corps — a group, which lets face it, all but waged an official anti-Lin propaganda campaign for the Rockets during his tenure — shoot some queries at D’Antoni during the Brooklyn Nets visit to the Toyota Center in January that seem to indicate they somehow don’t realize that he coached Lin in New York, the coach is ready.

“It was this big thing called Linsanity,” D’Antoni said. “You may have heard of it.”

Dry Wit 1, Houston Media 0. D’Antoni has this way of handling the media that’s secretly brilliant. He can be sarcastic, but subtly enough, that it goes over some people’s heads and never truly ventures into full-blown biting marks. He shows plenty of heart, but will never be confused with a pushover. It’s been one of the revelations of this Rockets season.

Anyone who knows anything about basketball (James Dolan and Jim Buss do not qualify on this count) long ago realized that D’Antoni is a difference-making coach. How good he is with words is an eye opener for anyone who hasn’t been around him regularly, though.

In his own way, D’Antoni made sure everyone realized just how idiotic he feels the way Lin’s been treated is. The doubts about Mike D’Antoni’s coaching are just as dumb — and divorced from reality.

Jeremy Lin and Mike D’Antoni are miles apart in the standings and situation at the moment. But they’re both still looking to each other, still doing their thing and making limited thinkers look clueless. Mike D’Antoni understands Jeremy Lin like few others — and Lin has a rare sense of what D’Antoni went through to get here, too.

Sometimes the NBA really is just a fraternity of two battlers, waging war against ignorance.

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