HOUSTON – Mike D’Antoni had an announcement to make.
The pre-practice prep with his Houston Rockets staff was about over, this skull session coming inside his crowded Toyota Center office just hours after their Game 2 blowout loss in the Western Conference semifinals to the San Antonio Spurs. It started as a two-man meeting, just D’Antoni and his top offensive assistant, Brett Gunning, analyzing the loss from every angle on video at around 9:30 a.m. Eight other men piled in from there, everyone from defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik to young video coordinator Mitch Vanya sitting around a table and plotting ways to take down the Spurs machine that, as they say, never beats itself.
The tape was hard to watch, but D’Antoni’s background tunes helped soothe their frustrated basketball minds – James Taylor, Creedence, Adele, John Legend and others cutting through the chorus of critical hoops analysis. And as the clock ticked past 11 a.m., the gray-haired D’Antoni had a silver lining to share.
“On a better note,” he said with a smile. “I beat Mitch twice on ‘Words With Friends.’”
The room erupted with laughter at the inside joke that won’t go away. And boy did they need it.
The NBA season is exhausting, a morning-till-night grind that demands the occasional dose of levity that the 66-year-old D’Antoni has always been eager to provide. Seven months of coaches meetings for people who see each other more than their friends and families. Seven months of teaching stars and role players in practice and game-day shootarounds. The Rockets granted exclusive access to USA TODAY Sports last week, providing a behind-the-scenes look at a team's preparation during an NBA playoff series.
Nearly 100 games later, down 3-2 in the series with the Rockets’ special season on the line ahead of Thursday’s Game 6, the routine is the same. It’s the mounting pressure that is different. And the one guy who should be uptight is anything but.
For all the well-deserved credit D’Antoni has received for changing the game with his famous Phoenix Suns teams of the mid-2000s, and for doing it again with this trailblazing Rockets team that is heading up the NBA’s three-point revolution, D’Antoni has still never defeated the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich in the playoffs. (He’s 0-4 in all.) What’s more, this is his first time coaching in the second round since 2007, when his Suns fell to the Spurs in six games.
Yet still – as it has been from West Virginia to Italy, Denver, Phoenix and even the failed stops in New York and Los Angeles – his disarming humor survives. So after D’Antoni announces his recent victories in the popular cell phone game, the punchlines start piling up. First, the necessary backstory.
All through this Rockets journey, this shared vision realized between owner Les Alexander, general manager Daryl Morey and the innovative coach they hired last summer to push the limits of the game, "Words" has become a vice of sorts for players, coaches and staff members. And Vanya, the reigning “Words with Friends” king with his mental thesaurus when he’s not cutting tape, had recently been accused by Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley of cheating.
“He’s the (John) Calipari of ‘Words,’ ” D’Antoni deadpanned about Vanya. “They took away all his championships. He’s actually 0-200 now.”
Vanya wasn’t actually cheating, just using a feature on the game that tells you if there’s a better word to be found that would be worth more points. But Beverley is the resident rabble-rouser, the 28-year-old D’Antoni favorite from Chicago who is obsessed with this game. Beverley is also the kind of competitor who will find an edge in any form, meaning he didn’t think twice about taking this matter to the highest court: He ratted Vanya out in pre-game chapel.
“Yeah, they brought it up in the chapel; they were sending him to hell right before the game,” D’Antoni quips as Vanya tells the tale. “Put some holy water on his a--, and put him back in.”
And then, clearly, a wave of guilt washed over Rockets forward Ryan Anderson.
“Then Ryan goes, ‘Wait guys, I have a confession to make; I cheated too,’” Vanya said.
Suddenly Vanya was off the hook, and the whole lot of them were practically rolling on the floor.
The game plan
The behind-the-scenes dialogue that came before the laugh-track may have been typical, but there was nary a filter to be found from coaches who can be brutally honest in this kind of setting.
They hated their team’s pace. They bemoaned the frequent use of low-percentage floaters. They were displeased with their disastrous defense, no one moreso than the defensive boss who came to know D’Antoni in recent years while coaching at the same college where D’Antoni’s son, Michael, goes to school (Wake Forest).
“You know, when I say ‘53 defense,’ it’s really just five-on-three,” Bzdelik cracked.
“We were just soft all over the freaking place,” D’Antoni added. “We were just soft. That is amazing.”
They worried about James Harden’s preference for playing all 12 minutes of the first quarter, concerns born out of a fear that a player never recovers his stamina in a full game after pushing too hard too early – especially since Harden has been battling a cold since early April and spent the early part of this series struggling with his wind.
“Who does that?” assistant coach Roy Rogers said of Harden’s preference for playing the whole first quarter. “I can’t think of any (other player) who does that.”
“Once you get tired, you can’t get it back; yeah, I’ll talk to him,” said D’Antoni, who later convinced Harden to occasionally alter his routine.
They worried even more about Spurs star Kawhi Leonard being great, debating whether Trevor Ariza or Eric Gordon was a better fit to defend him and running the numbers to see if the eyeball test matched the data provided by resident analytics expert and vice president of basketball operations, Monte McNair. They paid homage to Tony Parker after his season-ending quadriceps injury the night before, wondering aloud if his storied career might be over, then admitted that the 34-year-old’s defensive inefficiencies would be missed in this series.
They crafted offensive ways to stay away from Leonard and fellow wingman Danny Green, well aware that others such as Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, and 39-year-old Manu Ginobili are nowhere near as imposing on the defensive end.
“They can’t guard us,” D’Antoni said. “We guard ourselves.”
“This is the fun part,” D’Antoni said about this time of year. “I think everybody strives to get here, where it’s every play. It’s not like the grind of the season, where you’re just trying to keep an even keel.
“The whole season is like nothing compared to a week of trying to beat San Antonio or somebody, but this is fun-fun, especially when you know that you can go to the players and tell them in reality what the deal is, and they take it the right way, not the wrong way, and they’re not defensive, or blaming people. … That’s why I love this team. They’ve been resilient all year, and you can coach them.
“You can have all the numbers, and the system, plug in the pieces, but you only win championships by (having) champions. And those are having guys with big hearts, big balls, and brains – and gamesmanship. Those are champions.”
Win or lose, after all the New York Knicks drama with Carmelo Anthony and the Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard disaster in Laker Land, there is a joy in this experience that D’Antoni hasn’t had for years. The synergy that started last summer, when Harden embraced D’Antoni’s plan to move to the point guard spot and all of his teammates followed his lead, will remain. Winning these next two games would be a monumental step.
Practice was over, but that doesn’t mean Harden’s work was done.
He heard Bzdelik run through the defensive adjustments, then listened intently as D’Antoni and Gunning ran through the offensive gameplan. And then, with no one else left on the court other than the young prospects who don’t play, Harden spent the next 30 minutes shooting three-pointers with veteran guard Bobby Brown.
The Rockets braintrust – Alexander, Morey, CEO Tad Brown, and executive VP of basketball operations Gersson Rosas – sat on the other side of the court. The owner was impressed.
“It’s funny, the best player is here the longest,” said Alexander, the 73-year-old who bought the team in 1993 and has overseen two championships and playoff appearances in 16 of 24 seasons.
“And it’s not an act,” Morey said of the franchise centerpiece. “You know how some guys are ...”
“You’re talking about Bobby, right?” he said, bringing on another round of laughter.
To a man, they rave about Harden’s evolution and his intellect. After the Rockets’ eighth-place finish and locker room disharmony and an early coaching change from Kevin McHale to J.B. Bickerstaff last year, Harden vowed to grow as a leader.
He comes in early, stays late, even sits front and center during the team’s video sessions that precede morning shootarounds. He can be tough on teammates, putting on his coach’s hat like most superstars tend to while using a voice that carries more weight now.
All the while, D’Antoni finds himself being so impressed with Harden that bold statements are blurted without a second thought: “His ability to make plays … is as good as anybody I’ve ever seen. He’s unbelievable (with) what he can do. What he knows is ridiculous.”
Jokes aside, D’Antoni is fiery when he needs to be.
Just ask the tough guy who was sitting courtside in San Antonio for Game 2, the burly young man with tattooed arms who wouldn’t stop screaming about how Popovich would always prevail.
“Would you shut up?!” D’Antoni finally hollered back. “Goddammit!”
Or the opponents he used to grapple with in Italy so long ago, back when the floppy-haired point guard who never backed down was dominating the Italian League for Olimpia Milano.
“You ever get in any fights over there?” Alexander asked his coach.
“Oh hell yeah,” D’Antoni said with a smile before telling a few old tales of fisticuffs.
He’s in quite the tussle now with these Spurs, and it’s no laughing matter. At least not when the ball goes up.
“I enjoy the competition,” D’Antoni said. “We’re there. We’re battling. … I can handle (losing), as long as we do it the right way, and we’re battling. The Phoenix guys, you hate (that they never won a title) but you also love it at the same time. Those are my fondest memories.
“We battled them. We got after it, and it just wasn’t enough, for whatever reason. And we’re going to battle these guys.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.