"I'm not concerned about James Harden," D'Antoni said after the San Antonio Spurs salvaged a split of the first two games while holding Harden to 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting in Wednesday's 121-96 rout of the Rockets. "That's the least of my problems."
Kawhi Leonard ranks as the greatest of problems for D'Antoni, Harden and the rest of the Rockets. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich proclaimed Leonard to be the best player in the NBA, declaring that his excellence on both ends of the floor separated the forward from the league's other elite players, and Leonard's display of all-around dominance in the gotta-have-it Game 2 win added ammunition to that argument.
Leonard's offensive brilliance was breathtaking, a historically efficient exhibit. He scored 34 points on 13-of-16 shooting, putting up the best field goal percentage (81.3) in Spurs playoff history by a player with at least 15 attempts. He also had his best passing performance, dishing out a career-high eight assists.
How rare of air did Leonard's statistical line reach? The last time a player put up at least 30 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds while shooting 80 percent from the field in a playoff game: Michael Jordan in Game 2 of the 1991 NBA Finals.
Oh, and Leonard also had a lot to do with Harden's shooting inefficiency, whether or not The Beard is willing to admit as much.
"I just missed layups," Harden grumbled when asked about the impact of being defended by Leonard, which occurred much more often in the second game of the series than the opener.
Harden -- who dealt with pain in his left hip after banging it on the basket stanchion after a first-quarter drive and appeared to be nursing a cough during his postgame news conference -- barely got anything easy all night. The Rockets never got running the way they did in Game 1, with the Spurs succeeding in their mission to take the transition away from Houston.
Harden didn't go to the free throw line the entire first half and got only two whistles all night, both on 3-point attempts, one of which prompted Popovich to have extended, animated discussions with two different officials throughout a timeout and Harden's free throws. Harden was 2-of-9 from beyond the 3-point line and 1-of-8 in the restricted area.
"I just missed shots," said Harden, who did dish out 10 assists. "I missed shots. I didn't convert my layups. We knew they were going to come out with some aggressiveness in Game 2."
Popovich opted to start Pau Gasol at center over David Lee, but the Spurs' most significant strategic adjustment was to open the game with Leonard guarding Harden, which went to Danny Green in Game 1.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Harden was 0-of-5 with two turnovers with Leonard as his primary defender during the Spurs' win. (Harden made his lone attempt against Leonard in Game 1.) Three of those five misses were 3-point attempts, with the other two layups in traffic, one of which failed to even draw iron with the two-time Defensive Player of the Year's long arms contesting. Leonard blocked another Harden layup on a rare Rockets fast break.
"We put Kawhi on James because he's a good defender and James is a great player," Popovich said in a deadpan tone. "It's no rocket science."
Of course, if it were such an easy decision, Leonard would have spearheaded the Spurs' defensive game plan against Harden in the opener. With all due respect to Green, a very good defender in his own right, the reason it makes sense to assign Leonard to one of the Rockets' role players is the risk of fatigue with him carrying such a heavy offensive burden.
Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale joked during the first round that Leonard is a robot who bleeds antifreeze, but Leonard acknowledges the difficulty of defending a ball-dominant superstar while being a go-to guy.
"It's very challenging," Leonard said. "He's aggressive all night, and I have to give my team open shots and myself, going through a lot of pick-and-rolls, post touches and going through a double team. I just want to win the game, really."
So did Popovich, so he put even more on Leonard's plate.
It remains to be seen whether the workload wears on Leonard through the course of the series and perhaps into the next round, when Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors figure to be waiting. The Spurs will probably need even more from Leonard offensively, particularly as a playmaker, with point guard Tony Parker's status in jeopardy because of a left knee injury.
But Leonard certainly looked as if he had plenty left in the tank while throwing a flurry of punches that knocked out the Rockets in the fourth quarter. The Spurs went on a 15-0 run to stretch their lead to 26 before Leonard and other regulars called it a night with 3:57 remaining, signaling the start of garbage time. The Claw's contributions during that closing stretch: a driving finger roll, an and-1 floater, a pull-up 3-pointer, a pair of rebounds, a steal and an assist for a Jonathon Simmons 3.
"Yeah, we ask him to do a lot," Popovich said. "That's what great players do."