The way Eric Gordon should see it, Game 4 will count only as the beginning.
The Houston Rockets guard will enter the starting lineup for Tuesday night’s Game 5 against the San Antonio Spurs, building off a 22-point game in the Rockets’ Game 4 conquest in Houston. In starting the pivotal Game 5, Gordon and the Rox will look to push the Spurs to a 3-2 disadvantage with a continued bout of heady, yet rapidly paced play.
Of course, Gordon’s emergence into the starting five isn’t just an example of meritocracy at work. Rockets big man Nene, a 34-year-old veteran whose importance has grown leaps and bounds as his first campaign in Houston moved toward the postseason, will miss the rest of the playoffs with a left adductor injury.
The Rockets will move to showcase the starting five that led off the second half in Game 4’s win, one that features Ryan Anderson moving to the bench (from starting power forward to reserve center) while slotting Gordon alongside guards James Harden, and Patrick Beverley. Versatile swingman Trevor Ariza (still stuck on Kawhi Leonard duty) and screening center Clint Capela will round out the starting quintet, and James Harden will likely have to guard a 7-footer or two on Tuesday.
If the idea of “Ryan Anderson, backup center” doesn’t scan well, do listen to the man who has been explaining away these sorts of smallish lineups for over a decade now, 66-year-old Birthday Boy (on Monday) Mike D’Antoni:
— Daniel Gotera (@DTGoteraKHOU) May 8, 2017
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said backup center Montrezl Harrell and backup forward Sam Dekker could play if needed, but that would be based on how the game develops, rather than the rotation he plans for Game 5. If neither plays, that would leave the Rockets with a seven-man rotation.
“The biggest thing, if Clint would get in (foul) trouble, or you get quick fouls on somebody, you don’t really have (off the bench) what we want to get to,” D’Antoni said of the decision to bring Anderson off the bench.
That’s a quick way of saying that Mike D’Antoni needs shooters, he needs spacers, and he was born to coach Ryan Anderson. At whatever position. Harrell has only played in garbage time during this series, of which there has been plenty (18 minutes total for Harrell, five points and five rebounds with seven fouls), while Dekker saw some action immediately spelling Nene after his departure in Game 4.
“That could happen,” D’Antoni said of Dekker playing in the role he had on Sunday. “It could be somebody gets tired. He’s available and ready to go, if we need him for some minutes or foul trouble. It’s not automatic.
“(Harrell) is ready. One of those two, depending on what we need, they’re ready to go. Right now, we’ll just have to read the game.”
It’s going to be the 28-year-old Gordon, coming off a 22-point Game 4, who will have to push the Rockets over the top on the road. Game 5 will stand as the 16th start of the season for the veteran, now working on his third team, a departure for a player who started 398 of his previous 417 career regular-season games prior to joining the Rockets as a free agent last summer.
Gordon started the first six games of the season for his new team, averaging 16.2 points during the run, but following a 3-11 shooting night in a loss to Atlanta (which dropped the Rockets), D’Antoni made a move to shake Gordon’s foundation.
In an essay for the Players’ Tribune, Gordon explained D’Antoni’s approach in sending the veteran to the bench:
“Coach D’Antoni’s not gonna play games with you. He’ll give it to you straight.
“So when he told me in November that he was taking me out of the starting lineup, all he said was, “I’m moving you to the bench.”
“Bam. No leading into the conversation. No softening the blow. Just like that, I’d lost my starting spot. We were 11 games into the season.”
In three initial attempts with Gordon on the bench, the Rockets beat both the Spurs and Wizards prior to losing to San Antonio in a regular-season rematch, with Gordon averaging 17.7 points in about 31 minutes per game (just about what he’d played as a starter), making 19-40 shots. After one more try as a starter, though, Gordon was moved to the pine for good following a 5-20 showing against OKC during that 11th game.
The Rockets moved on to a 55-win season and while Gordon didn’t have the season of his career, 2016-17 had to stand as at least the most satisfactory of his run so far. The former Clipper and Pelican played in 75 games, the most since his rookie season, overcoming the litany of nagging injuries that kept him out of 219 regular-season contests between 2009 and his move to Houston.
From afar, via Ian Thomsen at NBA.com, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey spied a reasonably priced reclamation project to pounce on:
“He was on his way to being an All-Star his first couple of years in the league,’’ says Rockets GM Daryl Morey. “And then the injuries really derailed him. I don’t feel like the places he was playing – like New Orleans – necessarily fit how he wanted to play.’’
All the Rockets had to do was get Gordon on board, with James Harden leading the recruitment pitch last summer:
It was like a coordinated attack. I was like, Wow, these guys aren’t messing around. Trevor told me how much I’d benefit from the team’s training program — swearing that I’d feel like I was 10 years younger. … They talked my ear off. They threw around words like “playoffs” and “championships.” They told me that we’d be unstoppable on offense, that we’d put up historic numbers. That the Rockets’ game —always moving the ball to the open guy —would be a fun game.
Gordon’s prominent role on a very good Rockets team vaulted the nine-year vet into Sixth Man contention early in the season, though a midseason drop-off (and the addition of similarly packaged hybrid guard Lou Williams) scuttled that candidacy. None of that got in the way of D’Antoni’s insistence that Gordon – despite the drop in shooting efficiency, despite some of Lou’s hotter nights – comes straight from central casting:
“He’s what we need,’’ Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni says of Gordon. “He’s a two-way player who is very good defensively. He’s very strong, which allows you to be able to switch. He can shoot it with range, he’s driving it to the basket and he’s a much better playmaker than most people think. He is like that little extra that you put into your gas tank. When he comes in off the bench, he’s rolling.’’
Recall what the Rockets coach said prior to Game 4, following a Game 3 disappointment that saw the Rockets miss 27 of 39 3-pointers, with Gordon clanging 7-10 from downtown:
“We’re getting the looks,” he said. “We’ll knock them down.”
Gordon made D’Antoni look the genius yet again with his 6-9 showing from long range on Sunday, 22 points total on a night that saw Houston treat that top-five Spurs defense like a line of broom handles in black and silver to shoot over the top of. After four games, this series is hardly a secret: Houston can’t afford to let the pace slacken too much, because even in the team’s blowout wins the possession count ranks only a notch above or below the team’s regular-season marks in that area. Houston’s gotta push, San Antonio has to push back (but without fouling).
The tricks aren’t tricks anymore, and the absence of both Nene and Spurs veteran Tony Parker only adds to the focus, instead of heightening the confusion. San Antonio and Houston especially need to replicate the regular-season structure (such as it is) to take hold of a series that, even if it goes the full seven, may not end with either team taking complete authority.
Both prancers have seen this dance before.
Mike D’Antoni might be down to that seven-man rotation yet again, featuring a cast of unheralded bigs heading up against a San Antonio frontcourt featuring two recent All-Stars in 7-footers LaMarcus Aldridge (26 points in a rebirth during Game 3) and Pau Gasol (8.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks in 26 minutes a game as a starter in this series). Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, as he has for years, will just have to find a way to get in D’Antoni’s way with what he’s been left with.
Eric Gordon didn’t want this to be his way back into Houston’s starting lineup, but his presence stands as typical once you notice the coach calling the shots on the Houston sideline. We had to know that Mike D’Antoni was not going to shoot for his first NBA championship merely by shifting around centers.
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