LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The experiment was formalized on Feb. 6. In a crowded hallway at Staples Center, a couple of hours before his team would face the Los Angeles Lakers and 34 days before the N.B.A. season would be suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, Houston Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni announced that he was going small.
In some ways, D’Antoni had nothing to lose. He alluded to the fact that his contract was expiring at the end of the season. Besides, he had never been afraid to spice things up over the course of his long and eventful coaching career, and here was another opportunity to do something different.
“We just have a weird kind of team,” D’Antoni said at the time, “and we’re trying to figure out how to play them the best we can, and this is it.”
With P.J. Tucker, who is 6-foot-5, manning the center position, and Russell Westbrook feasting on open lanes to the basket, the Rockets defeated the Lakers that night, 121-111. Still, early reviews were mixed: Was Houston’s approach just a novelty? Would opponents figure out how to adjust? Would bigger teams grind them down in a grueling playoff series?
Seven months later, another litmus test awaits. After needing seven games to survive their first-round series against the fifth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets will play the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals, with Game 1 set for Friday night. So much has changed since these two teams met in February. But the overarching themes are the same.
“I never worry about the other team,” Westbrook said Wednesday after the Rockets closed out his former team with a chaotic 104-102 win. “When we play the way we need to play, it’s tough to beat us.”
The Rockets remain one of the league’s great curiosities, as innovative as they are polarizing: so many 3-pointers, so much dribbling, so many attempts to draw fouls. Houston was treating the midrange shot like kryptonite long before other teams began r