The Rockets’ three-point-heaving, star-studded offensive circus made its lone stop of the season in Brooklyn on Tuesday night for a matchup with the Nets at Barclays Center.
The spectacle did not disappoint.
MVP candidate James Harden led all scorers with 36 points and Chris Paul added 25 as the Rockets topped the Nets, 123-113.
“You got those two guys,” Rockets second-year head coach Mike D’Antoni said, “it’s unbelievable.”
Under the tutelage of D’Antoni and with the addition of Paul, who joined Houston in a blockbuster offseason trade, the Rockets have emerged as perhaps the most legitimate challenger to the defending-champion Warriors this season.
And they’ve done so by shooting. And shooting. And shooting some more.
For the second straight season, the Rockets (39-13, 2nd place in the West) are unleashing three-pointers at a historic pace, a byproduct of D’Antoni’s innovative system and the roster-building of general manager Daryl Morey. They attempted 33 in Tuesday night’s win, well below their season average of 43 but still above the league average.
Last year, before falling to the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs, the Rockets attempted an NBA-record 3,306 threes. After Tuesday night, they’ve already attempted 2,228 threes — 363 more than the next team, the Nets (19-36), who shot 16 of 35 from downtown Tuesday — and are on pace to shatter their own three-point record by more than 200 attempts.
“When in doubt,” D’Antoni said, “we’re shooting it.”
The Rockets have six players in the top 20 in the league in three-point attempts per game, including Harden, who leads the NBA at 10.6 attempts per game and shot 4 of 10 in Tuesday’s win.
“This year has been a fun one,” Harden said.
Sixth man Eric Gordon (13 points) is third in the league at 9.3 attempts per game. Paul is 17th at 6.8 three-point attempts per game, by far the highest average of his career. Before this year, Paul — who shot 4 of 8 from three Tuesday — had never averaged more than 5.0 attempts per game in a season.
“We play our way,” Paul said. “We’re going to push the tempo. We’re going to try to get threes up.”
For D’Antoni, the former Knicks head coach, this is nothing new — merely the next step in a natural progression as the league has accepted, adapted to and eventually installed his offensive thought process.
D’Antoni, of course, rose to NBA prominence as the head coach of the Suns from 2003-08. With the help of two-time MVP-winner Steve Nash, D’Antoni led Phoenix to 60-plus-win seasons in 2004-05 and 2006-07. His teams never advanced to the Finals, though, leading many at the time to question whether his high-paced spacing scheme could translate to a championship.
Well, a decade later, the Warriors proved the system could work when they won their first title with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in 2014-15. After the championship, Golden State assistant coach Alvin Gentry said, “Tell Mike D’Antoni he’s vindicated!”
D’Antoni has now taken the approach to an extreme. For comparison, the 2004-05 Suns attempted 2,026 threes. The Rockets had already surpassed that this season in 51 games.
“The big ‘but’ in the Phoenix teams was they didn’t think you could win with the style that everybody’s playing right now,” D’Antoni said. “They would go, ‘Yeah, but they’ll slow down in the playoffs’ and, ‘They can’t shoot threes” and, ‘They’re shooting too many.’ You don’t hear that anymore. So our defense needed to get better in Phoenix, but…it wasn’t awful.
“We won 62 games (in 2004-05). We had the best record on the road. And we did that without defense? I don’t know how that even happens. But that was the ‘but.’ So I think that if we go back to those days, there’d be no ‘buts.’”
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson served as an assistant on D’Antoni’s Knicks staff from 2008-2012 and has applied similar principles in Brooklyn, in terms of pace and three-point shooting.
The Nets have attempted 1,865 threes.
“Mike’s always ahead of the curve,” Atkinson said, bringing up his “good friend” unprovoked. “He was ahead of the three-point revolution and the spacing. It’s really amazing, always counterculture. What’s the next thing? He’s still ahead of it, and now he’s got the threes going on, agree with it or disagree. He gets a lot of criticism for it. But it looks like it’s turning out all right for him.”
D’Antoni was asked if he’s more confident in his title chances this year than he was in years past, particularly those seasons in Phoenix.
He shook his head.
“We could have won it back then,” D’Antoni said. “We can win it now.”
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