NBA fans can be forgiven for not paying special attention to Thursday night’s Western Conference Semifinals Game 6 between the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. San Antonio’s pregame announcement that Kawhi Leonard would miss the contest with the ankle injury he suffered late in Game 5 appeared to tilt the balance too heavily in the favor of the host Rockets.
While the Rockets failed to put away the Kawhi-less Spurs on Tuesday, the team with the third-best record in the league this season seemed more than capable of putting away a San Antonio squad forced to play without its MVP candidate and the already unavailable Tony Parker. All signs pointed to a Rockets win on Thursday and a winner-take-all Game 7 at AT&T Center on Sunday.
Game 6 did turn out to lack late-game drama — just not in the way anyone expected. The Spurs thrived without Leonard, crushing the Rockets 114-75 to advance to their first Western Conference Finals since the title-winning 2014 campaign. San Antonio will be the underdog in that series against the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, but it’s now prudent not to underestimate Gregg Popovich’s team.
Few gave the Spurs much chance to win this series after a Game 1 blowout loss and the injury to Parker, and they just went ahead and won a road close-out game without one of the best players in the sport. Popovich has now defeated every Western Conference team in a playoff series over his storied career as Spurs head coach.
The Spurs handled life without Kawhi by returning to a past offensive approach — elite ball movement. As Leonard has become the Spurs’ focal point, the attack has organized itself around his burgeoning gifts as a scorer and playmaker. Without him, the Spurs lacked any player able to create his own shot, which required spreading the floor and moving the ball to pull the Rockets’ defense out of shape.
That plan worked splendidly early — the Spurs shot a stunning 56 percent from the field with 18 assists in the first half. Better yet, those numbers were by no means unsustainable. San Antonio went just 4-of-13 from beyond the arc and got the vast majority of their looks inside the paint. The Spurs led 61-42 at the half, and the Rockets looked sunk.
Houston showed more life after the break, but the general form of the game did not change. San Antonio continued to move the ball, encountered little resistance from a home side that looked flat-out exhausted. The Spurs added to the lead in the third and entered the final period up 87-64 before adding to the margin in garbage time.
The loss of Leonard was certainly a meaningful one for the Spurs, but they were not without a star-level performance in Game 6. Big man LaMarcus Aldridge completed his turnaround from a lackluster Game 1 with a game-high 34 points (16-of-26 FG) and 12 rebounds. Beyond shooting well, Aldridge showed a level of activity at both ends that usually isn’t part of his style of play. This game was arguably his best since he opened the 2014 postseason with consecutive 40-point games against the Rockets.
Perhaps getting a few touches allowed Aldridge to start Game 6 on the right track. He told ESPN’s Doris Burke about the benefit of getting so many touches in his post-game interview:
Yet the performances of Jonathon Simmons and Dejounte Murray, both of whom started this series out of the rotation, were arguably just as important to this win.
Simmons took Leonard’s place in the starting lineup and put up 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, a scoring explosion that wasn’t even as meaningful as his terrific defense on James Harden. Meanwhile, Murray came off the bench to post 11 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists to maintain the pressure and intensity when others sat.
Remarkably, the Spurs were the quicker and more physically imposing team, even without an athletic marvel like Leonard on the floor. Simmons (plus-32) and Murray (plus-33) logged the best plus-minus numbers of the night and should see serious minutes against the Warriors’ many small-ball lineups.
In theory, the Rockets also had matchup advantages to frustrate a Spurs rotation reliant on untested players and aging veterans. In practice, though, the hosts lacked the energy and resolve to extend their season.
The bulk of the blame for this loss will fall on James Harden, and that’s not entirely wrong considering his status as an MVP candidate and his startling inability to take a shot in the first quarter and five-point, five-turnover first half. However, the Rockets’ problems on Thursday went well beyond one player. They stumbled through possessions, looked sluggish in transition, and rarely made the Spurs work at either end. The team that left the Toyota Center court in Game 6 bore little resemblance to the fast-paced, high-activity squad that impressed so much in Mike D’Antoni’s first season as head coach.
Unfortunately, D’Antoni’s habits arguably had something to do with that somnambulant performance. For all his strengths in opening up offenses and empowering players, D’Antoni prefers short rotations that often cause his players to look tired come mid-May. The “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns struggled with the Tim Duncan-led Spurs, and now the “Everyone Can Shoot” Rockets have fallen to another Spurs team oriented around its frontcourt. Nene’s season-ending thigh injury limited D’Antoni’s options after Game 4, but it can’t come as much of a surprise that the smaller team looked exhausted after playing only seven guys in the Game 5 overtime loss. D’Antoni is always going to play his style, win or lose, but that doesn’t mean it’s not open to criticism.
After the events of this series, though, Popovich and the Spurs are arguably beyond reproach. The Spurs have accomplished a lot in the postseason over the years, but this comeback rates as one of their most unlikely successes. The majority of teams are not equipped to overcome an overwhelming, concerning Game 1 loss, a season-ending injury to the most important player in the backcourt, and the absence of an MVP candidate for the end of one game and all of another.
San Antonio faces a severe challenge against Golden State in the conference finals and might be fortunate to win more than one game, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If Game 6 is any indication, the Spurs can be pretty great when they have nothing to lose.
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