Chris Paul has a long history of playoff heartbreak.
So does James Harden.
And Mike D’Antoni has more than either of them combined.
Separately, they’ve never gotten it done at playoff time. Together, their fortunes might change. They’ve led the Houston Rockets to the NBA’s best record going into these playoffs, and in a league that Golden State and Cleveland have dominated in recent years, it may not be overly surprising to see the Paul-Harden-D’Antoni triumvirate win it all this spring.
With two regular-season games left, the Rockets have already piled up a franchise-record 64 wins to secure the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. But this group — perhaps fueled by past playoff shortcomings — knows it has much more work to do.
“The ultimate goal is holding that trophy up,” Harden said. “So until we do that there’s no celebrations … we haven’t done anything yet.”
D’Antoni, who’ll turn 67 next month and would be the oldest coach to win an NBA title if Houston gets it done, has revived his career in Houston. He got the Rockets to the West semifinals in his first year with them last season. And on the eve of these playoffs, D’Antoni insists he won’t spend a second thinking about all the times things went wrong in his previous postseason trips.
“Zero,” he said when asked how much he thinks about his playoff failures. “Twenty-nine teams look back every year. It’s hard to win.”
D’Antoni might know that better than most.
In 2004-05, his Phoenix Suns won 62 games in the regular season and reached the conference finals before losing to eventual champion San Antonio in five games. The Suns advanced to the conference finals again the following year, but were eliminated by Dallas in six games. They lost in the second round in 2007, the first round in 2008.
More failures followed in his stints with New York and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Knicks were swept by Boston in 2011, the Lakers swept by the Spurs in 2013, both of those coming in the first round. Before last season, D’Antoni hadn’t won a playoff game in nine years.
“We’ve had a great regular season, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “But what it does mean is that we’re pretty good and if we make big shots and do what we’re supposed to do … then we’ll see if we can do it.”
Paul’s failures in the postseason may be even more scrutinized. The nine-time All-Star, who came to Houston in an offseason trade, has made nine playoff trips without advancing past the second round. The worst of those flops came in 2015, ironically against Houston, when Paul and the Clippers had a 3-1 lead in the conference semifinals. They got blown out in Game 5, wasted a 19-point second-half lead in Los Angeles in Game 6, then fell in Game 7 at Houston.
That was then, Paul said.
“It is cool when you stop and think about it,” Paul said. “But for us right now we’re trying to enjoy the moment. Trying to enjoy the process and not worry about all that stuff. Maybe after it’s all said and done you can reflect on it.”
Harden knows playoff pain as well. His splendid 2016-17 season was so promising, especially after Houston routed San Antonio, on the road, in Game 1 of the West semifinals. The Spurs won four of the next five, including a 114-75 embarrassing series-clincher in Houston where Harden was held to 10 points.
“These last few years I’ve learned that obviously you can’t do it by yourself,” Harden said. “You need guys to step up, make big shots, make big plays and so we have enough guys in here on any given night that can change a playoff series. So that’s what you need. That’s what puts you over the top.”
Paul might be the topper Harden needed.
From the moment Paul arrived in Houston, Harden raved about what he would bring to the team. After playing with him for a season, the normally reserved Harden was even more effusive in his praise of the fellow guard.
“I don’t mean to sound too mushy or what-not but it was like love at first sight,” Harden said. “It was just meant to be.”
This will be Harden’s ninth playoff appearance after three trips with the Thunder and five in Houston. He’s led the Rockets to the postseason in each of his seasons in Houston, but his failure to shine in big games has dogged him for years.
Bringing a title to Houston, which hasn’t seen the Rockets hoisting a Larry O’Brien Trophy since the back-to-back crowns in 1994 and 1995, will render all those criticisms moot.
“We’re all in this together,” Harden said. “That’s what it’s all about. We talk about it every single day. We’re in this together and if one fails we all fail. So we’re going to ride this thing out together.”
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