With right players and D'Antoni's system, Rockets reaching offensive stratosphere

HOUSTON -- The numbers seem fictitious.

There's the 140 points scored in a regulation game. Another game with an NBA-record 61 3-pointers attempted and an record 24 3-pointers made. There's the league record 27 consecutive games with at least 10 3-pointers made. A player with a historic 50-15-15 stat line. Four players in the league's top 10 in 3-point field goals made and attempted. In the month of December, the Houston Rockets scored 2,056 points, becoming the first team to score at least 2,000 points in a single month since the Golden State Warriors in March 1992.

In Mike D'Antoni's wildest dreams he might never have believed his pace-and-space offense could reach the heights these Rockets are reaching. This didn't even happen in Phoenix, where D'Antoni brought his brand of basketball to the NBA and was called a revolutionary figure by many coaches.

Now with the Rockets, the astronomical numbers being produced provide the veteran coach with some satisfaction that he was right: Pace and space can work.

"I think we were kinda tip-toeing, we didn't know in a sense," D'Antoni said. "There was no one out there saying you can win like that. We shoot 30 3s and somebody would say, 'Oh that's too many.' Maybe it is. 'You need to post up.' Since the dawn of analytics and people in Golden State showing what you can do, we pushed the envelope. We probably could have done that in Phoenix, we could have been even better."

Thursday night the Rockets face Oklahoma City in a game involving two of the front-runners for the MVP award in James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

In D'Antoni's offense, Harden is going places not even Steve Nash managed to go while winning two MVPs.

Harden has recorded nine triple-doubles, 29 double-doubles, five games with at least 35 points scored, nine games with 15-plus assists, three games where he tied his career high in assists with 17 and two games where his offensive rating was over 160. When he scored 53 points as part of a triple-double in a New Year's Eve victory over the Knicks, Harden tied Wilt Chamberlain's record for most points scored in a triple-double.

D'Antoni had to push Nash to shoot the ball because he was more of a passer than a scorer. In Nash's first season under D'Antoni's offense in 2004-05, he had six games with at least 17 assists.

At first Harden wasn't sure what the limits would be to the Rockets' offense.

"Not now," he said. "It did in the beginning but now with all the talent we have and the shooters and the spacing on the floor it makes it easier on the floor."

Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, two free-agent pickups for the Rockets, are thriving with D'Antoni and Harden.

Anderson is shooting a career-best 41.3-percent from 3 and Gordon is averaging 17.7 points, his best number in the past four seasons. D'Antoni's offense opened the door for centers Clint Capela and Montrezl Harrellin the post. It has taken pressure off Trevor Ariza to become the second scorer, and Patrick Beverley continues his strong defensive play without needing to score often.

When the Rockets hired D'Antoni, team owner Leslie Alexander had to defend the move to fans and media who wanted a defense-minded coach. Based on how the Rockets structured their roster, D'Antoni is looking like the perfect fit. His system allows players like Gordon, Anderson and Ariza to wait for Harden to draw defenders his way so he can make passes for open jumpers. It spreads out the defense, allowing Beverley to attack the glass for rebounds.

When the Rockets have pick-and-roll plays, it forces defenses to either go with the big or stay with Harden, worrying about his ability to shoot the jumper or drive to the basket.

The Rockets are the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference nearing the midpoint of the season, something even their biggest fans probably didn't expect.

The front office signed the players with D'Antoni and Harden in mind. Everybody has been on the same page, unlike what D'Antoni experienced in previous stops in New York and Los Angeles. Players understand their roles and D'Antoni's laid-back style is proving effective.

"We had the same thing in Phoenix," he said. "We started off 31-4, it was even quicker then. It doesn't surprise me. I didn't know how good we could be really quick or how good we could be anywhere. They're picking it up and after about 10 games we got our stride and we got Pat back (from knee injury). We've been good every game and we just got to keep it going."

The rise is stunning to many who believed the West would be nothing more than a two-team race between Golden State and San Antonio.

It has even surprised D'Antoni.

"A little bit. We just got a lot of good shooters, and James is one of the better point guards I've ever seen," D'Antoni said. "Just how he orchestrates things. I didn't think we shot well the other night and we still put up 140 so we can get a lot better and hopefully we will. Just lucky to shoot with a lot of shooters."

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