OAKLAND, Calif. — The Houston Rockets missed another layup, and Chris Mullin grimaced. He was wearing a black Golden State Warriors T-shirt as a show of solidarity, but it still bothered him that the Rockets were missing so many easy shots. It seemed to wound his basketball soul.
“Wide-open layups,” Mullin said, shaking his head. “They’re lucky they’re only down 12. It’ll catch up to them in the third quarter.”
Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday was not yet a rout, but Mullin could sense what was coming. He was once one of the N.B.A.’s premier long-range technicians, but he has always valued layups, and the Rockets were giving the Warriors every opportunity to build on their early lead.
“The Warriors put so much pressure on you to make your open shots,” Mullin said, “because they’re going to make their shots eventually, and other teams know it.”
After watching Game 1 on television from a couch in Iowa and Game 2 from a garage in Alaska, I found myself just a few rows up from the court at Oracle Arena for Game 3 — Section 128, Row 13, Seat 1. Mullin, now the men’s basketball coach at St. John’s, was to my immediate left. He was joined by his former teammates Mitch Richmond and Tim Hardaway, a trio of guards known in N.B.A. lore as Run TMC.
“We all went on to play in other places,” Mullin said, “but we all said it was the most fun when we played together.”
Listen, I know the original concept behind my coverage of this series was to watch each game with a knowledgeable coach, far removed from the actual game itself. But after learning that Mullin and the rest of Run TMC would be in the stands for Game 3, we figured that an exception could be made. Our regularly scheduled programming will resume for Game 4.
Mullin, 54, spent a good chunk of the Warriors’ 126-85 victory signing autographs and posing for photos with fans who recalled his days as a five-time All-Star with the Warriors. People here were in a celebratory mood.
Mark Wendell, a semiretired construction worker from San Pablo, Calif., just happened to occupy one of the seats directly in front of Run TMC. Wendell, 62, a season-ticket holder during the Run TMC era, could not believe his good fortune. He wore a pin on his baseball cap with Mullin’s old No. 17 jersey.
“Are you kidding me?” Wendell said. “Are you kidding me? I come here, and those three guys are sitting behind me? This is just about the greatest thing ever.”
Mullin, Richmond and Hardaway played together for just two seasons, from 1989 to 1991, and lost more regular-season games (83) than they won (81). But their up-tempo, small-ball style of play under Coach Don Nelson captivated fans, especially coming as it did when many teams around the league were still running their offenses through back-to-basket centers. The Warriors were anything but dull. They were appointment viewing.
“Nellie was ahead of his time teaching that,” Mullin said of the team’s high-octane offense. “Now, everyone plays that way.”
As for Run TMC’s unusually long-running love affair with the Bay Area, Mullin said: “I think there was an appreciation that we played hard and played together. We were just regular guys, you know?”
Alas, the Run TMC experiment was brief. The team had — how to put this politely? — defensive limitations, which was one of the reasons the Warriors traded Richmond to the Sacramento Kings before the start of the 1991-92 season. Richmond went on to become a six-time All-Star with the Kings. The Warriors advanced to the playoffs just twice over the next 15 seasons.
The franchise’s post-trade tailspin helps explain why Run TMC — one of the most beloved abbreviations in league history — has been so romanticized over the years by basketball fans, who wonder what could have been had the group stayed intact. Mullin wonders, too. The basketball they played together was fun and fast and free, and he sees elements of it in the way that the modern-day Warriors operate.
“They play without the ball,” Mullin said. “They set screens. They shoot a lot of 3s, but they’re always moving as opposed to just spotting and standing. I never played standing still. It’s the opposite of what the game should be. The game is about motion and flow and rhythm.”
As an aside, Mullin loves the 3-point line. He encourages his players at St. John’s to take a bunch of 3-pointers.
“Plus, it’s the college 3,” he said. “It’s a joke how short that shot is.”
But even by Run TMC standards, the Warriors who obliterated the Rockets on Sunday to take a two-games-to-one series lead appeared to have enviable freedom to line up shots from distant galaxies. Richmond, 52, who now works with Mullin as one of his assistants at St. John’s, leaned forward in his seat when the Warriors’ Nick Young launched a wild 3-pointer in the first half.
“Heat check!” Richmond shouted.
Mostly, though, Mullin was alarmed by how many open shots the Rockets were missing: layups, runners, uncontested jumpers. The Warriors were not exactly shooting at a historic clip, either, but they already had a 10-point lead in the second quarter when the Rockets’ James Harden blew a layup. None of this boded well for the Rockets.
“Gotta make those,” Mullin said. “It’s demoralizing because you basically did everything right except knock it down.”
There were moments when Mullin sensed that the Rockets were preoccupied with dribbling into the lane with the goal of kicking the ball to the perimeter for 3-pointers. He could tell, he said, by the way they were jump-stopping with two feet instead of exploding to the basket — which, on more than one occasion, turned out to be available for layups. Except they kept missing.
The Warriors, meanwhile, began to take advantage. Ahead of halftime, Kevin Durant made a 12-foot jumper.
“Nothing wrong with a nice 2 once in a while,” Mullin said.
Durant quickly followed that up with a layup.
“Nothing wrong with layups, either,” Mullin said.
When Golden State’s huge run came in third quarter, Mullin snapped his fingers.
“The lead is 30 now,” he said, “just like that.”
The errors continued to mount for the Rockets. In the fourth quarter, Mullin was baffled when Harden lunged for a steal against the Warriors’ Shaun Livingston along the 3-point line. Mullin knew that Livingston was not an outside threat — he attempted five 3-pointers during the regular season — so why, Mullin asked, was Harden guarding him so far from the basket?
Livingston easily evaded Harden with a behind-the-back dribble and drove for a dunk. The building practically shook. The Warriors were in the process of setting a franchise record for postseason margin of victory.
Mullin, who was once similarly capable of energizing crowds, took it as a cue to make a move of his own.
“I might try to beat the traffic,” he said.
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