Smith: Rockets must be relentless, not flashy in NBA bubble  08/01/2020 19:35:28 

Robert Covington’s brilliant NFL-like tip in with 3.3 seconds separating defeat and overtime in a protective bubble perfectly captured the promise.

James Harden once again doing crazy Harden things — 49 points, 18 made free throws, nine rebounds, eight assists — reminded the basketball world that The Beard is the best contemporary scorer in the NBA.

But my favorite image from Friday night, as the 2019-20 Rockets returned to life via a thrilling 153-149 overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.?

Mike D’Antoni, 69-years-old and with his NBA future on the line since last October, intentionally removing his mask so he could make sure a nearby referee heard exactly what the Rockets coach said.

These Rockets must be relentless near Disney World.

During the remaining seven seeding games, which could lift them to second place in the Los Angeles-loaded Western Conference.

For however long their playoff run lasts.

Whatever it takes. And it will probably take everything.

Friday was a reminder of how frustrating, electric, confusing and inspiring the Rockets have been since 2014-15, when Harden became one of the premier players in The Association and his team started annually following his lead.

Sunday back on national television — versus Giannis Antetokounmpo and the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks at 7:30 p.m. on ABC — will yet again test a squad attempting to validate the worth of small ball and its leading superstar every time it takes the hardwood.

The Rockets allowed Dallas to score 85 points in the first half Friday, playing some of the worst “defense” these eyes have ever seen.

The Rockets also scored 75 points in the first half, ignited by 23 fiery first-quarter points from Harden.

The Rockets trailed by 14 and were down by seven points with just 45.2 seconds left in regulation.

The Rockets outscored Luka Doncic’s Mavericks 45-30 during the game’s final 17 minutes and walked off the court as the stronger and more driven team.

D’Antoni’s squad could have collapsed but refused. Russell Westbrook and Harden combined for 80 of their team’s 153 points, uniting in the decisive moments and overpowering Dallas in OT.

That is how it’s going to have to be in the bubble. Harden and Westbrook. Westbrook and Harden. Just enough from Danuel House Jr., P.J. Tucker, Covington and Co. — especially until an injured Eric Gordon returns.

I won’t be surprised if Harden returns to the conference finals for the third time in six seasons. I won’t be surprised if the Rockets are bounced out of the postseason before the second round arrives.

Defense will ultimately define how far this team goes. Offensive efficiency, on- and off-court chemistry between Harden and Westbrook, role players, Gordon and D’Antoni will heavily factor in.

Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers are deeper. LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers, theoretically, are better. After that, the West is completely wide open and the Harden-Westbrook duo from Friday night can overcome any opponent in the league.

Then again, the Rockets were a Dallas late third-quarter run away from a blowout defeat and D’Antoni’s team has been inconsistent and uneven all season.

The Rockets aren’t reaching the NBA Finals by giving up 43 points in the second quarter. They fought through a 13-for-30 shooting night from Westbrook, who clanked mid-range shots and blew a late layup.

The initial look at professional basketball inside an unprecedented bubble has been fascinating. (What did I do Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday afternoon? I watched the NBA, of course.) It’s also been a reminder of how talented the league is in 2020, even with the broken Golden State Warriors on the outside looking in.

Close, intense games. Last-second victories. None of the going-through-the-motions nonsense that too often drags down the NBA’s normal 82-game season. It's The Association wrapped inside a holiday high school tournament.

The Rockets were half-ready for the first half Friday. They finished by looking like one of the most dangerous teams in the league.

The win didn’t finally arrive because of pinpoint shooting or a constant barrage of 3-pointers. After 53 minutes, the Rockets won their first game in Florida because of defense, offensive selflessness and hardwood intensity.

D’Antoni’s team doesn’t need to be flashy to impress the basketball world in the bubble.

These Rockets will only stand out and last if they are relentless.

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