Getting past the San Antonio Spurs was a constant struggle for head coach Mike D’Antoni, whose seven seconds or less style didn’t work against the Spurs.
Fixation can be dangerous — Especially for a head coach and lead decision-maker for a sports organization. For current Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, beating the San Antonio Spurs wasn’t a goal: It was a mission. As the mastermind behind the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns, D’Antoni crafted an intricate strategy that never quite got over the hump.
Now, as leader of the Rockets, D’Antoni has free rein to operate the ultimate version of his offense without a true center. It’s been a major talking point in NBA discourse with this unorthodox strategy proving valuable in Houston’s Game One victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. That up-tempo, high-value 3-point shooting style has become par for the course in the NBA, but back in the mid-2000s, it just wasn’t enough for the Suns.
During a great piece by ESPN’s Tim MacMahon on D’Antoni’s small-ball experience, people close to the situation reflected on the esteemed coach’s struggles with San Antonio. Former Spurs guard Steve Kerr became an executive for the Suns in 2007 and was immediately pushed toward making a trade for a player to combat Tim Duncan. That resulted in the Suns’ trade for an ageing Shaquille O’Neal, who went on to have a mediocre series in a five-game victory by San Antonio in the 2008 postseason.
“It felt like maybe our train had left the station,” Kerr said, recalling that there was a title-or-bust mentality within the franchise and an extreme frustration about the inability to beat the Spurs.
Hence the deal for a 35-year-old Shaq, a trade Kerr acknowledges was made because “our process wasn’t sound,” referring to the Suns’ tunnel vision on trying to match up with Duncan and the Spurs.
“Everybody’s thinking at the time was, if we were ever going to get past the Spurs, we had to have somebody to guard him and put pressure on him offensively,” said Alvin Gentry, the former New Orleans Pelicans coach who was D’Antoni’s lead assistant in Phoenix and replaced him as the Suns’ head coach. “That’s why the trade was made.”
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Shortly after being eliminated in ’08, D’Antoni asked permission to interview with other teams, leading to his next gig with the New York Knicks. He signed a four-year contract that he didn’t finish before moving onto his next job with the Los Angeles Lakers. The veteran coach has been in his current position with the Rockets since 2016.
D’Antoni’s problems overcoming the Spurs didn’t stop there — His small-ball lineups and 3-point-heavy offenses have succumbed to San Antonio on many occasions since. He’s done battle with head coach Gregg Popovich five times in the postseason: Three times with the Suns, once with the Lakers in 2013 and once with the Rockets in 2017.
More recently, the Rockets have outperformed the Spurs in the regular season, but the silver and black regained their stature by winning two of their three meetings this year. Most recently, the Spurs beat D’Antoni’s small-ball Rockets by 18 in the Orlando bubble.
There’s no denying that D’Antoni is an inventive coach, but he’s not close to Popovich’s level.