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Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni says he owes 'a lot' to Sixers

BOSTON - Friday's game at the Wells Fargo Center is definitely a homecoming for Mike D'Antoni. It's just not a full-fledged one.

BOSTON - Friday's game at the Wells Fargo Center is definitely a homecoming for Mike D'Antoni. It's just not a full-fledged one.

The Houston Rockets coach spent only five months as the 76ers' associate head coach. But D'Antoni said he is indebted to the team that he will face in a game that will be televised at 8 p.m. on ESPN. And it goes both ways.

The Sixers are not only indebted to D'Antoni, his former players love him, and some were sad when he left in May to accept the Rockets' coaching position.

So don't be surprised to see a pregame love fest between the 65-year-old and several Sixers.

"Obviously, I owe a lot to that organization, just bringing me in and getting me back in circulation a little bit," D'Antoni said after the Rockets' loss to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night at TD Garden.

These days, people are thinking less about his struggles with the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks and more about his glory days with the Phoenix Suns.

It's funny what happens when D'Antoni has the right personnel to demonstrate his run-and-gun reality show of an offense.

The Rockets (34-15) are in the midst of a rough stretch, losing six of nine games. Despite that, they possess the league's third-best record behind Western Conference foes the Golden State Warriors (39-7) and San Antonio Spurs (36-9). The Cleveland Cavaliers (30-14), who lead the Eastern Conference, have the league's fourth-best mark.

Through 49 games a season ago, the Rockets were 25-24 and on their way to finishing with a 41-41 record and their conference's eighth playoff seed. They lost to the Warriors, four games to one, in the first round.

This season's nine-game improvement has a lot to do with D'Antoni's style and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's acquiring free agents to fit the coach's system.

The team signed long-range- shooting options in former New Orleans Pelicans Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon. But the best offseason move came when D'Antoni turned James Harden into a point guard.

Harden is arguably the leading MVP candidate. He's averaging 28.6 points, a league-best 11.6 assists, and 8.1 rebounds.

Houston "is like the perfect setup for how he likes to play, what he's done," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of D'Antoni.

While coaching at Butler from 2007 to 2013, Stevens utilized some of D'Antoni's tactics to enable his undersize Bulldogs to become NCAA national runners-up in 2010 and 2011.

"Some of the things you picked up and learned [were] how they space the floor," Stevens said. "How you could maximize a smaller lineup against another. He's been a great coach to follow and learn from."

He's also a coach Morey admired for years.

The general manager just never had a chance to hire him before because D'Antoni was employed during the Rockets' previous coaching vacancies.

Last season, the Sixers showed instant improvement during D'Antoni's first work day as coach Brett Brown's associate head coach on Dec. 26, 2015. They snapped a 12-game losing streak with a 111-104 road victory over the Suns. That also marked the first game of Ish Smith's second stint with the Sixers after he was acquired two days earlier in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Smith tossed an alley-oop to Nerlens Noel on the first play of the game. D'Antoni took advantage of Smith's quickness and Noel's athleticism in up-tempo pick-and-rolls the rest of the season.

The Sixers actually went 6-9 in D'Antoni's first 15 games on Brown's bench. They were 1-30 before that.

"Man, I loved him," Noel said. "He was just an offensive genius. I had a really great time with his offensive sets. He's just a players' coach.

"He knows how to let you play your game and give you the confidence that you need to go out there and just do it."

But it was the Sixers who put D'Antoni back in the coaching candidate spotlight.

It was obvious that D'Antoni wasn't hired just to assist Brown with offensive X's and O's regardless of how the Sixers tried to spin it. He was with the team to be the front office's eyes and ears while new chairman of basketball operations Jerry Colangelo was more than 2,000 miles away in Phoenix.

There were also whispers then that D'Antoni could have replaced Brown this season had the Sixers struggled early.

D'Antoni and Colangelo have a relationship dating to their days with the Suns in the early 2000s. Colangelo is the former Suns owner and was a longtime cornerstone of the franchise. D'Antoni went 253-156 in five seasons as the Suns coach. They also worked together on the USA Basketball staff when Colangelo served as the chairman.

But D'Antoni was unable to have the same type of success in his other coaching stops, compiling a 202-290 record with the Nuggets, Knicks, and Lakers.

While his defenses were average in Phoenix, they ranked no higher than 20th in the league during his full seasons with the Knicks and Lakers. He also failed to get Knicks superstar Carmelo Anthony and former Laker great Kobe Bryant to buy into his coaching philosophy.

"Those guys didn't really fit how he wanted to play," said Morey, who wasn't concerned about Harden's meshing with D'Antoni. "So that tension [between a star player and his coach] went away when you had a guy like James Harden, who wanted to play like that."

D'Antoni never had tension with the Sixers. That's likely because they played at a faster tempo after his arrival. The Sixers were getting quicker and more open shots.

"When I knew he was going to Houston, I was pretty sad," T.J. McConnell said.

Meanwhile, it didn't take Houston guard Patrick Beverley long to become overjoyed. And it's not just because of D'Antoni's wide-open offense.

"He's a good man, a real good heart," Beverly said of the 13-year veteran coach. "He has a lot of confidence in his players, and he's willing to go to war for his players.

"When you have a coach like that, you're willing to run through walls for him. You see that throughout this year."