Culture / Sporting Life

Mike D’Antoni Completely Out Coaches Steve Kerr to Steal Game 4: Iso-Ball is Slowly Driving the Warriors Mad, Putting Epic Upset in Reach

BY // 05.23.18

Mike D’Antoni is supposed to be wearing down the Houston Rockets with his stubborn short rotations. Instead, he’s wearing down the NBA’s Golden Chosen Ones, the team everyone already all but marked into the NBA Finals.

Going against nearly every offensive principle D’Antoni used to speed up and save the NBA in his Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix days, the Rockets coach is turning this glitzy showcase Western Conference Finals into a slog. And it just may steal the series — and alter the history of the league all over again.

Rockets 95, Warriors 92. In Oracle. How’s that for a twist?

Coming off the worst loss in playoff franchise history (a 41-point debacle), down 10 points with 10 minutes remaining in the hardest road arena to win at in the NBA, on the verge of seeing their 65-win season of such bravado whimper right out the door, the Rockets claw back and leave Golden State grasping for air.

James Harden deserves immense credit for keeping the Rockets in range for the first three quarter. Chris Paul orchestrates plenty of toughness late. And Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza both hit huge 3-pointers when it counts most. It turns out 6 and 1/2 (Gerald Green plays only 12 minutes) is enough.

As long as Mike D’Antoni is the one coaching them. How’s that for a twist?

Let's Rodeo Houston!

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Steve Kerr at a Loss

Make no mistake, the Rockets do not win this game without D’Antoni completely out coaching Steve Kerr, the man who was his less than understanding boss in Phoenix when things finally went bad in the dessert. D’Antoni coached one of the most devastating offensive teams in NBA regular season history in Houston this season. But three games in the Western Conference Finals (and that 41-point loss) seemed to convince the Rockets savior that he could not best these Warriors in any kind of offensive showdown.

So in Game 4, D’Antoni shortens his rotation even more, calls for even more dribble, dribble iso-ball and somehow reduces what was billed as an offensively historic series into a slowdown. To hold these Warriors of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to 92 points in a home playoff game in this series is borderline amazing.

That’s great coaching. That’s putting your ego aside to give your team the absolute best chance to win, no matter what adjustment it takes, or style (unappetizing or not) it requires. It’s the kind of coaching should be Hall of Famer Rudy Tomjanovich used to do the last time this Rockets franchise won a championship.

Tomjanovich never cared if he got the credit either — and it didn’t have to be pretty. At 67, having been both Kobe and Melo scarred, D’Antoni seems to be in this place. I still believe he’d much rather play the Warriors style if he could. But Daryl Morey hasn’t given D’Antoni the players to do that in Houston. So D’Antoni coaches the Rockets the way that gives them the best chance to win.

In this showdown series, that means making it a grind.

“This game was sort of trench warfare,” Kerr says in his postgame press conference. “A lot of isolation. I guess this is the modern NBA.”

Kerr sounds a little bitter. In fact, he sounds like sort of a crybaby after his team coughs up Game 4 by getting outscored 25-12 by the Rockets in the fourth quarter. This is the surest sign yet that these Rockets are actually getting to the champs like a bad Tinder date.

It’s hard to imagine any team with Curry and Durant struggling to score a dozen points in a crucial fourth quarter (or five less than Curry scores in the third quarter himself), but that’s what the worn-down Warriors do. With Andre Iguodala out with a leg injury, removing that Hamptons Five lineup from the equation, it is Steve Kerr who struggles with his rotations.

He plays Draymond Green a whopping 45 minutes, more than even any Rocket plays, and has Durant match Harden’s 43 minutes. Sure, Kerr uses nine players technically. But he uses them much less effectively than D’Antoni deploys his six and a half.

“We just ran out of gas,” Kerr says.

That’s on him. And on D’Antoni’s iso-ball sets that require individual Warriors to defend deep into possessions again and again.

The better team’s suddenly locked in a 2-2 series with two of the next three games on the road in Houston. The better coach has suddenly given these Rockets much more than a wild puncher’s chance.

“Houston, we’re coming home,” Chris Paul tells Kristen Ledlow in TNT’s on-court postgame interview.

They’re being led there by the best coach in the series. And arguably the entire NBA (sorry Brad Stevens honks). How’s that for a twist?

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