SAN ANTONIO -- The Beard, well aware that one blowout win does not a series make, was all business after the Houston Rockets roared to a 126-99 road rout over the San Antonio Spurs to open the Western Conference semifinals on Monday night.
"Game 1 is good for us," James Harden said without a hint of a smile, "but we've got to get greedy."
Harden meant, of course, that the Rockets can't be satisfied by simply getting a split on the road against the favored Spurs. In that case, greed is a good thing. But a selfless style, exemplified by Harden, has put the Rockets in position to make an extended playoff run.
These Rockets are a stark contrast from last season's chemistry catastrophe, a team that was a miserable .500 mess before getting booted by the Golden State Warriors in a first-round gentleman's sweep. Some significant tinkering by general manager Daryl Morey has resulted in a Rockets roster full of players who complement Harden and embrace their roles. The hiring of offensive mastermind coach Mike D'Antoni, who convinced Harden to become a full-time point guard, made a great player even better.
These Rockets are a joy to watch with Harden -- one of the best scorers of his generation, who emerged as the league's premier facilitator in his maiden voyage as a point guard -- in complete control.
Consider the first quarter on Monday, when the Rockets built a double-digit lead that the Spurs never threatened. Harden completely dominated the quarter without even seeming to break a sweat, scoring 11 points on only four shots from the floor, while dishing out five assists and allowing forwards Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson and young big man Clint Capela to get in a rhythm after those role players struggled offensively in the previous series.
Time and time again throughout the night, Harden made the smart, simple pass to get teammates open looks and easy buckets, racking up 14 assists before resting for the entire fourth quarter. He dictated the pace of the game, sometimes without dribbling much, delivering savvy advance passes to teammates streaking up the floor in transition.
"That's not going to change," said Harden, who finished with 20 points to go along with those 14 dimes in 31 minutes. "Our pace is always going to be there. It's my job to make sure the ball gets past half court and guys are in attack mode, guys are getting shots."
It just so happened that the three Houston starters who stunk offensively in the five-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder stung the Spurs. Ariza, fresh off of going 3-of-16 from 3-point range in the previous series, scored a game-high 23 points on Monday and nailed half of his 10 3-point tries, four coming off feeds from Harden. After going 3-of-24 on 3s in the first round, Anderson was 4-of-10 from deep in Game 1, with Harden assisting on half of the makes. That opened the floor for Capela, who scored a playoff career-high 17 points on 8 of 10 shooting, with six assists from Harden, highlighted by a beautiful, between-the-legs bounce pass for a dunk on a pick-and-roll.
It wasn't necessarily the Rockets' game plan to get those role players going. It was just a matter of Harden reacting to the Spurs' uncharacteristically sloppy defense.
"We don't run plays for people," D'Antoni said. "Maybe if there is a timeout sometimes, but they are getting what the offense produces, and James is the producer in the sense that he reads it. If it's Clint, if it's Trevor, if it's Ryan, if it's Pat [Beverley], he just picks out what he thinks is the right guy. On a given day, different guys will step up. If we share the ball, then we have no problems."
D’Antoni's system certainly helps, as it did during Steve Nash's heyday with the Phoenix Suns. But it takes a terrific conductor and complementary pieces to make the system run smoothly, as proved by D'Antoni's unsuccessful stints with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers.
All season long, Harden has seized the opportunity, leading the league in assists, building a legitimate MVP case and elevating the Rockets to surprise contender status.
"That's why he's so great, because he's not out there holding the ball in his hands the whole time, shooting 20 shots in the first quarter," Anderson said. "He's a guy that wants to feel the rhythm of the game, feel the flow of the game, make the right play. ... A lot of times, teams focus on him, so he knows if he passes the ball off, he’s going to get a wide-open shot for somebody else.
"His court vision is unbelievable. He's so much more than just a scorer. He's proven that all season. I know that we all really love playing with each other. He loves playing with this group of guys. That's helps too, when you trust the guy next to you."