How Houston built its best chance at dethroning Golden State

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HOUSTON — Daryl Morey has been planning for this series for a full year.

The 55-win Houston Rockets, eliminated in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs, weren’t good enough to get a shot at the mighty Golden State Warriors last postseason. But the Rockets’ GM thinks big. Incremental improvement wasn’t enough.

Morey wanted to dethrone the Warriors’ dynasty. He is “obsessed” with it, as Morey himself put it during a headline-grabbing appearance on ESPN Radio in December.

The Rockets rolled to the NBA’s best record (65-17) and earned their chance to meet the defending champions in the Western Conference finals in large part because of a series of summer moves Morey executed with beating the Warriors in mind.

The blockbuster trade for Chris Paul was about closing the talent gap with Golden State. The Rockets needed to get Hall of Fame-caliber help for James Harden to have any hope of challenging a team that features a pair of former MVPs and two other perennial All-Stars.

The signings of PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, a couple of smart, versatile veterans who have been critical to the Rockets redefining their defensive identity, were about matching up with all the Warriors’ offensive firepower.

The Rockets’ road to contention, though, started long before, most significantly with Morey stockpiling assets that he traded for Harden, winning a bet that Oklahoma City’s former sixth man could evolve into a franchise player.

The six years since then have been spent constantly churning the roster around Harden, searching for superstar talent to pair with him and the right role players for the supporting cast.

The question that remains is whether all of Morey’s moves will prove to be enough. Game 2 in Houston on Wednesday night will go a long way toward answering whether the Rockets truly have a formula capable of stopping the Warriors’ run to a fourth straight Finals.

Morey hit what was perceived as a home run with the 2013 signing of center Dwight Howard in free agency. The Harden-Howard partnership produced a trip to the 2015 West finals — the Warriors dismissed the Rockets in five games — and then fizzled quickly.

This team feels different, a group on the same page, a bunch of veterans who understand their fit. No signs of friction between alpha males Harden and Paul have ever materialized, in large part thanks to the constant communication they’ve had since last spring.

None of this roster renovation would have been possible without Harden, Houston’s main attraction and lead pitchman.

“James was everything,” Morey said. “Not only is he a great player on the floor, but he’s someone who’s just focused on winning and is willing to do anything to make it happen, whether it be meet with people, call them, text them, whatever is required. He makes my job easy.”

Paul didn’t recall who was first to reach out, but he and Harden quickly found common ground. Both were disappointed to be spectators at that point of the playoffs and were determined to give themselves a legitimate chance at a championship. With Paul leaning toward opting out of the final year of his contract and leaving the LA Clippers in free agency, Harden sold him on the idea of teaming up in Houston.

They began talking almost daily, discussing the potential of their partnership and how they could click on the court. Houston forward Trevor Ariza, Paul’s close friend since they were teammates in New Orleans, reinforced Harden’s pitch and helped convince Paul that the Rockets had the kind of culture he craved after an often tense tenure with the Clippers.

“It was just watching the landscape of the league and talking about having fun,” Paul said. “So far, so good. Still got a lot of work to do, but regardless, I’m having the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

“In order to get where we want to go, we needed the right pieces. That’s what they’re here for.”

James Harden, on Houston’s signings of Chris Paul, PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute

Morey never had to make a pitch to Paul, who decided to opt into the final year of his contract so the Clippers could trade him to the Rockets before free agency officially began, a move that enabled Houston to keep the midlevel exception that was soon used to sign Tucker.

The Rockets paid a steep price, with guards Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams headlining a package of seven players, a first-round pick and cash sent to the Clippers. There was risk involved in pairing two ball-dominant guards, but Morey didn’t hesitate.

“I say sometimes flippantly that there isn’t really a superstar store in the NBA where you get to go and pick out which one you want,” Morey said. “You have to jump on the opportunities as they come and sometimes make them fit.

“But in this case, we didn’t really have to [make them fit]. The fit was really incredible from day one.”

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni never had any doubt that the Harden-Paul duo would work, having been on the Team USA staff when they played together in the 2012 London Olympics. Morey acknowledged that he particularly wondered how the “alpha dogs” would coexist in crunch time.

The answer: even better than the Rockets could have reasonably hoped.

The Rockets ranked second in the NBA in clutch plus-minus (plus-70) despite being tied for the fewest minutes (107) in those situations, as defined by the score being within five points in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime.

There was never a hint of friction between the two playmakers, with Paul happy to be a sidekick for the league’s probable MVP. Including the playoffs, Houston is 52-8 when Harden and Paul both play, including road and home wins over the Warriors during the regular season.

“Chris is the obvious difference in their team,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters last week. “They’ve been really good the last few years, but he gives them a new dimension that they haven’t had before.”

Tucker and Mbah a Moute have been more subtle difference-makers for the Rockets. They are critical elements to the Rockets’ rise in the defensive efficiency rankings, from No. 18 a year ago to No. 6 this season.

Houston associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik, who is in charge of the Rockets’ defense, wanted to install a switch-intensive scheme that Morey readily admits was devised with the Warriors in mind. That required smart, tough defenders capable of holding their own against any of Golden State’s stars. Tucker and Mbah a Moute fit the bill.

“It was really about winning a championship,” Mbah a Moute said. “I saw [the opportunity to join Houston], and it made sense.”

The Rockets pursued a trade for Carmelo Anthony, but that had no impact on their interest in Tucker and Mbah a Moute. (Sources said at one point the Rockets were optimistic that a three-way deal could get done with the Portland Trail Blazers serving as a facilitator, but talks with the New York Knicks fizzled after Phil Jackson’s exit.)

In fact, Harden started recruiting Tucker days after their season ended when they hung out together in Atlanta.

“Yo, you’re coming to Houston,” Harden told him then, according to Tucker. “We need what you do.”

Tucker got the same message from Paul, whom he has known since they were AAU rivals as kids, when he reached out to his fellow North Carolina native after the Rockets pulled off the blockbuster trade. Tucker told Paul then that he was intrigued by Houston.

“Oh, no-brainer! You’ve got to come,” Paul replied.

The Rockets engaged in discussions with Andre Iguodala and JJ Redick about their midlevel exception, but they both signed significantly richer deals, Iguodala to stay with the Warriors and Redick to go to the Philadelphia 76ers.

“You have to have multiple balls in the air to make sure you don’t end up with no ball at the end,” said Morey, who also had serious discussions with an Eastern Conference team about trading for a defense-minded wing.

“So we were talking to all three of them at the same time, and they were all talking to multiple teams. Obviously, it coalesced when PJ had to make a decision, so he needed an answer from us, and that’s when it was finalized.”

Tucker committed to the Rockets on July 2 after a conference call with Harden, Paul, Morey and D’Antoni, turning down a bigger offer to return to the Toronto Raptors. Tucker said the call didn’t last long, with scheme and specifics about his fit never coming up.

“They know what I do. I know what I do, what I bring,” said Tucker, who moved into the Rockets’ starting lineup to stay in February. “It’s just building all the pieces and bringing the pieces together. It wasn’t a whole lot of talking, wasn’t a lot of convincing. It was perfect for me. I just do what I do. I don’t have to do anything extra. It was a perfect situation for me.”

Mbah a Moute, who received a call from D’Antoni in the opening minutes of free agency, was originally disappointed when he heard the news about Tucker’s commitment to the Rockets. Mbah a Moute figured that meant that Houston would no longer be interested in him.

“PJ pretty much does the same thing I do,” Mbah a Moute told D’Antoni in their next conversation.

D’Antoni replied by telling Mbah a Moute that the Rockets still wanted him, that they needed multiple pieces in that mold to successfully execute their defensive transformation. Paul also pitched Mbah a Moute, his Clippers teammate the previous two seasons.

“[Paul] was more talking about the atmosphere on the team,” Mbah a Moute said. “He’d been hanging out with the guys in Vegas for a few days, and he was telling me about how great it was and how different it was. He felt like it was a good vibe.”

Paul couldn’t believe that the Rockets, who could offer only the veterans minimum, had a chance to sign Mbah a Moute. Paul was giddy that they could get a professional who fit so well at that price.

“Luc is someone I’m so close to that I don’t even have to talk to,” Paul said. “We don’t have to talk every day or nothing like that, but I trust him — know what I mean? Same thing with Tuck. Trevor, too. I trust them at all times.

“Those guys are the most valuable guys to have on your team. There’s nothing like it. So I talked to them and we built all this together.”

The spotlight in the West finals is on the superstars, the proven champions against two of the league’s most accomplished players without a ring. But the Rockets’ role players who were under-the-radar offseason signings could hold the key to the series, as hinted by their performances in Houston’s regular-season wins over the Warriors — and the Game 1 loss.

Tucker and Mbah a Moute combined to average 30 points in those two victories, shooting 60 percent from the field and 56.3 percent from 3-point range. But they combined for a grand total of one point in Game 1, and Mbah a Moute admitted after his scoreless, 0-of-6 shooting performance that he doesn’t “trust” his right shoulder enough to attempt to dunk after twice dislocating it on dunks this season, the second causing him to miss the first round of the playoffs. He’s still trying to regain his rhythm.

The Rockets need Tucker and Mbah a Moute in this series because of their defense. Mbah a Moute was especially effective on that end in the regular season against the Warriors, who scored only 97.2 points per 100 possessions in 56 minutes when he was on the floor.

This is the dream scenario Morey obsessed over: Harden and Paul orchestrating one of the best offenses of all time; young center Clint Capela emerging as a legitimate third star; Tucker and Mbah a Moute along with Ariza keying a drastically improved defense designed to compete against the Warriors.

“Obviously, bringing Chris here and Tuck and Luc, we had a vision,” Harden said. “In order to get where we want to go, we needed the right pieces. That’s what they’re here for. Everybody has a role to fill. We go out there and compete at a high level every night on both ends of the floor, and we have to live with the results. But I know if we give the effort that we know we can, it’s pretty tough to beat us.”

Of course, as Houston saw in Game 1, it’s historically hard to beat Golden State. Morey and the Rockets might not be getting over their obsession anytime soon.

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