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Rockets go with the role-player flow during NBA playoffs

Rockets guard Russell Westbrook, center, celebrates after a Game 2 victory over the Thunder on Thursday.
(Kim Klement / Associated Press)

James Harden, saddled by fouls and a vanished jumper, howled as he ran up and down the Rockets’ sideline in his warmups. Russell Westbrook celebrated in a sleeveless Iron Maiden T-shirt. Their teammates, a bunch of NBA misfits, had sent the Oklahoma City Thunder running to the hills.

Jeff Green is with Houston because he got waived. Also on the court were Austin Rivers and Ben McLemore. And Danuel House, whose 19 points and nine rebounds were huge in Game 2, he’s been waived four times — including twice by the Rockets.

This is what Houston has, and this is what is working right now.

With the Lakers and the Clippers stumbling in the early stages of the first round of the NBA’s playoffs and with Denver now trailing Utah, the West’s front-runners haven’t been able to, well, run. But thanks to their supporting cast, the Rockets have put together the most consistent performances in the conference.

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“Everybody who gets to the NBA, at some point, they’ve kicked some tail somewhere,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said after Thursday’s win. “They’re good. Now it’s just putting them in the right spot and getting their confidence up and having players believe in them.

“If they’re like everyone else, there’s a very fine line between being real good in this league and just being in the league.”

A look at how the top 14 picks might be made after the NBA set the lottery selections, with the Timberwolves getting the first pick.

For talents such as Harden and Westbrook, who is out indefinitely because of a quad injury, fit is mostly irrelevant. They create the parameters. For players such as Green, Rivers and McLemore — all former lottery picks — the situation and opportunity are critical to their success.

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Green, for instance, has been on nearly a third of the league’s teams over the last decade. He’s unquestionably talented — a scoring big man who can handle the ball and step back and be credible from three-point range. But he’s been one of the league’s most nomadic players, a constant dance between his seductive talent and the starker realities of his limits.

More than a month after Utah waived him earlier this season, he landed in Houston with the Rockets committed to a new style of play, one without a center. So why not use the 6-foot-8 Green at the position?

In Houston’s first two playoff games, Green has 37 points while sinking six three-point shots. In the bubble, he’s scored at least 10 points in all but one game.

Before anyone anoints Houston general manager Daryl Morey a genius for unearthing contributors from other teams’ leftovers, he admits that there’s probably some recency bias. For the four success stories in the Rockets rotation, the team has probably auditioned 12 other players to fill those roles and missed.

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But, they’re willing to try and fail — to take cast-off talent and see if they’d be a better fit on their roster. The approach, Morey said, comes from stripping away all the narrative that surrounds a player.

“Let’s start with the assumption that we know nothing,” he said.

So while Sacramento took McLemore to be a lead guard anchoring the offense, Houston had no problems recasting him as a spot-up shooting specialist. After being on the fringes of the league after six underwhelming seasons, McLemore was one of 16 players in the NBA this season to take at least five three-point shots a game while making at least 40%.

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Why has this worked for Houston? A lot of the credit has to go to Harden. More than anyone other than Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Harden commands so much defensive attention that things should be easy enough for anyone willing to step into an open jumper or cut to the basket at the perfect time.

And then there’s D’Antoni, someone who allows players tremendous offensive freedom while helping build their confidence and comfort levels.

Is this all sustainable, this crew of role players helping push the Rockets to their first NBA Finals of the Harden era in Houston? It’s hard to imagine it can happen without Westbrook returning healthy and effective.

Mike Conley hit seven three-pointers and scored 27 points in his first game back from quarantine, and Utah beat Denver 124-87 for a 2-1 series lead.

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In the meantime, the Rockets are doing a lot with what they have by figuring out what to do with talent that couldn’t previously find the right fit.

“The guys that are playing are showing tremendous energy,” House said.

“When you have that kind of spirit, and we do right now,” D’Antoni added, “you’ve got to keep it.”

Woike reported from Los Angeles.


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