The Houston Rockets began the Western Conference semifinals by lighting the NBA’s No. 1 regular-season defense on fire. Over the last two games, the San Antonio Spurs have restored order by putting one of the league’s most explosive offenses on ice.
The Spurs held the Rockets to a season-low 92 points and a season-low-tying 36.4 percent mark from the field on Friday night, holding Houston below 100 points for the second straight game — the first time that’s happened to Mike D’Antoni’s go-go club all year — to earn an impressive 103-92 win. San Antonio now holds a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven series, and has regained home-court advantage after the Rockets swiped it in Game 1.
Sure, James Harden got his, because not even the best stoppers in the world can keep a scorer and playmaker of his caliber down for long. After a disappointing 13-point outing in Game 2, the Rockets’ MVP candidate scored a game-high 43 points on 14-for-28 shooting, with 30 coming after halftime as he tried to will Houston to victory:
But with the exception of a brief first-half flurry from Trevor Ariza — who went 5-for-9 from 3-point range for 15 points before intermission — and some interior finishes by center Clint Capela, nobody else in a Rockets jersey could shake loose long enough to knock down a shot.
“Offensively, we just let ourselves down,” D’Antoni said after the game. “We just couldn’t get it going. Guys couldn’t get open. When they were, they couldn’t make them.”
After that hot start, Ariza went just 1-for-6 after halftime, finishing with 17 points. All non-Harden Rockets combined for 49 points on dreadful 18-for-60 shooting, as the complementary scorers and playmakers who’d shined at times through the first six games of this postseason — Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Nene — came up damn near empty against a suffocating San Antonio defense dedicated to selling out to contest the 3-point arc and congest the paint, and forcing Harden — who flourished like never before this season after D’Antoni slid him to point guard and entrusted him with orchestrating his spread pick-and-roll attack — to act for himself rather than activating others.
“They’re doing a good job of just staying at home on our shooters, and forcing me to finish and make plays,” said Harden, who’d wind up with just five assists, during his post-game news conference.
Stifling the Rockets’ offense was just half the battle for the Spurs, though. Playing without longtime linchpin Tony Parker, who went down in Game 2 with what was later revealed to be a ruptured left quadriceps tendon that cast the point guard’s future into doubt, San Antonio also needed even more playmaking from Kawhi Leonard and a significant step up in scoring from LaMarcus Aldridge. Pop got both.
Leonard continued his stellar postseason with 26 points on 9-for-20 shooting to go with 10 rebounds, a career-high-tying seven assists and one steal in 41 minutes of work. Popovich gave rookie Dejounte Murray the start in Parker’s stead, but the bulk of the creative responsibility fell to Leonard, who’s not in Harden’s galaxy as a distributor, but who has improved his own facilitation by leaps and bounds over the years, and has assumed increased responsibility for keeping San Antonio’s offense on time and on target.
The aggregate workload — beat Ariza off the bounce to generate your own offense, break down the defense to create for others, spend the bulk of your floor time fighting through screens, harass Harden so your teammates can clamp down on his potential release valves — seemed to start to wear on the All-Star forward early in the fourth quarter, as he misfired on a pull-up jumper and split a pair of freebies with the Spurs holding a slim two-possession lead. Kawhi needed some help. He got it.
After two quiet games to start the conference semis, Aldridge came up huge when it counted, scoring 26 points — his highest point total since March 21 — on 12-for-20 shooting while pulling down seven rebounds, blocking four shots and dishing a pair of assists in an exorcism of a bounce-back game that both he and the Spurs had to have. Nine of those points came in the fourth, including a pair of layups off feeds from frontcourt partner Pau Gasol to help push San Antonio’s lead to 11 with 5½ minutes to go, allowing the Spurs to keep the Rockets at arm’s length down the stretch to salt away the win.
“I do what the team needs,” Aldridge said after the game. “Tonight, this was needed. And I did it.”
Asked after Game 2 if Aldridge, who didn’t seem to be moving as well as he had earlier in the season, was suffering from knee problems, Popovich offered sort of a cagey answer: “LaMarcus … he doesn’t have a knee injury, but he’s working through some things.” After Aldridge’s breakthrough performance in Game 3, Pop suggested that the power forward had, for one night at least, worked through them.
“Well, this was his best game [of the series], obviously,” Popovich said of Aldridge in his post-game news conference. “He felt good tonight. He was loose, as far as his physical nature, his legs and everything. He wasn’t too stiff, and it showed. He moved up and down the court well. He was able to push off on the block and he felt good shooting the ball, in addition to busting his butt on D and trying to hit the boards for us. He was a big help tonight.”
He wasn’t the only one. Gasol chipped in 12 points, nine boards, four assists and two blocks in 31 minutes in his second straight start in the middle. Backup swingman Jonathon Simmons made an impact with his energy off the dribble, on the glass (six rebounds, three offensive) and with a very timely 3-pointer that beat the third-quarter buzzer to help stem a Houston surge and send San Antonio into the fourth quarter with a six-point lead:
Danny Green continued to make his presence felt defensively …
Man, Danny Green's pretty good at chasedown blocks. https://t.co/OwscYQ2sIQ
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) May 6, 2017
… and hit a couple of huge shots on his way to 11 points, including a big 3-pointer after losing Harden on a baseline cut to give the Spurs a 12-point lead with 3:14 to go:
Houston would never get closer than nine after that, stumbling down the stretch with missed shots, turnovers and technical fouls as they sputtered to the finish line. By the final buzzer, the Rockets seemed a million miles removed from the confident, composed and lethal offensive machine that took the Spurs apart just five nights earlier.
San Antonio has changed the tone, tempo and tenor of this series, limiting high-powered Houston to just 99.7 points per 100 possessions over the past two games, effectively turning one of the game’s most explosive attacks into something below the league-worst Philadelphia 76ers’ offense. The Spurs have done so by figuring out how to use something that looked like a weakness — Pop’s preference toward playing two bigs together, which seemed a recipe for disaster against small-ball-loving Houston — into a weapon.
With Leonard shadowing Harden, the Spurs’ other perimeter defenders staying attached to Houston’s wing shooters, and San Antonio’s big men playing back on the pick-and-roll, Popovich is aiming to do everything he can to invite the Rockets into the area between the 3-point arc and the front of the rim, and forcing them to make shots over very big dudes standing directly in front of them with their arms up.
The midrange jumpers and foul-line floaters the Spurs seem so willing to concede are, of course, exactly the shots that Houston’s “Moreyball” offense don’t want to be taking. Mostly, they didn’t — more than three-quarters of the Rockets’ shots came either at the rim or from long distance — but the Spurs’ size inside and attention on the perimeter made those losing plays, as the Rockets converted only 15 of their 28 tries at the basket and 12 of their 39 freebies. And when they did take what San Antonio was offering, they didn’t make much out of it, shooting 4-for-11 on shots in the lane outside the restricted area and just 1-for-10 between the paint and the arc.
“That’s the way they defend us,” Beverley said, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “They come off pick-and-roll. Pau Gasol, he’s long. LaMarcus Aldridge, he’s long. They’re trying to take away the alley-oop for Nene and Clint.”
If Game 1 was the peak of what the Rockets’ offense can do, even against a disciplined and effective defense like San Antonio’s, then Game 3 was something closer to the valley — the dismal cratering that comes when the coin just won’t stop landing on tails, when your high-variance process produces repeatedly dispiriting results. And yet: what’s zagged can very easily once again zig.
As good a job as San Antonio did of getting a hand up on Houston’s shooters, Harden’s colleagues left plenty of meat on the bone, too. According to SportVU player tracking data, the Rockets went just 6-for-35 (17.1 percent) on uncontested looks on Friday. A few of those go the other way, and we could be having a very different conversation.
Beverley on Rockets shooting 36.4%: "We got every shot we wanted. We had 10 in & outs…We just couldn't get anything to fall. It happens."
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) May 6, 2017
If the Rockets have proven anything this season, it’s that they’re not afraid to come out firing. Expect Houston to double-down on its pick-and-roll, drive-and-kick game in Sunday’s Game 4, with D’Antoni perhaps going even smaller — more minutes for Anderson at center? Maybe some ticks for Sam Dekker? — to try to run Gasol and/or Aldridge off the court and remove some of that rim protection from the paths of Harden, Gordon and the rest of the Rockets’ creators.
The Spurs will be ready, though. They’ve already shown in this series the capacity to take a big punch, shake it off and keep coming. Now, on Sunday, they’ll look to lean on Houston, and it’ll be the Rockets’ turn to adjust and survive.
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