You know what? The beginning quarter did not look much different than the game three version, outside of Houston hitting a few more of those threes they took. The entire game felt like last game should have went, with the Rockets feeling good and going off. This series is already weird, and I do not know if anyone has a good sense of it.
Some attribute the variance to the three point shooting — if the Rockets make them it is over — and others (Pop included) to the defense. Count me among the latter, as the threes come from poor defense. Sure, James Harden hit a couple stand-still threes from the corner, and a fall-away in Gasol’s face, but that did not make the game.
Much like in Game 2, when the close game was blown open by a Spurs run, this one was close until the third quarter run by the Rockets. The period began with a Gasol bucket that cut the game to two, it ended with a Ryan Anderson buzzer-beater to make it 15.
In between the Spurs had multiple chances to stem the run, just like in the first half. In a surprising turn, outside of Aldridge, there was not much going for SA. In the third, Kawhi had 2 points on 1/4 shooting, 2 fouls, and a turnover (offensive foul). He was off all night, going 7/14 on the shots he usually makes more of — those 6-10 foot jumpers he feasts on. Oh, and he only managed three free throws and missed two of them.
Still, Aldridge nearly single handedly carried the team back to within striking distance. The lead shot up to 18, with five minutes left. Aldridge and company got it down to 10 two minutes later, and again on a Patty Mills jumper in the lane (after stealing it away from Lou Williams on the ground).
Then the Rockets started hitting some of their open looks, started hitting not-open looks, and then it was about done after Pop’s bench brigade failed to muster a rally in the early fourth. 1
I am not exactly sure what Pop means when he says “transition” but this is right in that general description area. Usually people think of “transition” to mean “fast break” but the Spurs did not really give up many of those. This is not going to be in the latter category because the defense is set. Still, it is a transition period as the Rockets are very early in getting in the half-court set. Lou Williams walks by Danny Green here for a dunk. It was difficult for the defense as Ryan Anderson was the lone big man and right here it is a five-out set.
This was much earlier and fast break points, but Pop was very upset with this.
Chuck Barkley made a good point about Eric Gordon being a second ball-handler in the third for them. Where in the usual starting lineup (Harden, Anderson, Beverly, Capela, Ariza) Harden is the only playmaker and real finisher at the rim, the one with Gordon (in place of Anderson) presents problems. Gordon moves much more (and better) off the ball than Ryan Anderson, and can create his own shot.
Really, Lou Williams did a lot of damage. The Rockets were getting to the rim with no one there to challenge. I am thinking is mostly what Pop means when he is discussing the transition defense. In any case it is bad defensive basketball.
We also so some of the same game one problems offensively — the misses leading to run outs. The Spurs were generally patient getting the ball to LaMarcus inside (ten straight in the third!) but the patience lacks crispness. The Rockets are still changing the looks they give Kawhi, but he was not having trouble getting to his spots, just making them.
This was a clear example of a game that needed Tony Parker. The third quarter got away from the Spurs as the pace picked up. He could have calmed things a bit, and provided (hopefully) some scoring. While Dejounte Murray was solid if unspectacular, he still made some rookie mistakes. While he was doing some solid slashing to the hoop, he does not get the team into the sets quickly or comfortably, nor does the team look particularly comfortable running the stuff with him out there. These things inform one another, obviously.
James Harden and all the drivers made a point to not always attack the rim, but be more patient and find cutters.
— NBA (@NBA) May 8, 2017
That is a tough cover for LaMarcus Aldridge, who has to go from 3-point line, to the block to the 3-point line quickly. That is the challenge, however. You still want Ariza being the playmaker than Harden, who finished with 12 assists tonight. The Rockets found a slight adjustment to reduce the value of Pau defensively (I cannot believe I wrote that). It was a slight one that really was about being more patient, compared to game three’s more assertive.
It seems reductive but if Kawhi was producing buckets at the same kind of clip he was in the last few games, this thing would have been much closer. Playing What If is a big part of fandom but it does not change anything.
Ironically, the Rockets losing Nene might change things in their favor. The super small lineup should be punished by the Spurs big guys — more of Aldridge eating vs Harden in the post — but those gains can be cancelled out by easy run outs and Eric Gordon raining threes and getting to the cup.
We already knew the series dynamic was going to be size vs pace-&-space, but the extremity is a little surprising. Every Spurs lineup is compromised without Tony, and tonight it showed.
The Rockets were going to have a home game where they exploded. Game four was that game. Mike D’Antoni took some solace in the fact that his guys were only down three in game two, before the Spurs went on a run. We too can feel some confidence knowing that this game was a little closer than the final score indicated. The Spurs were within two early in the third before things fell apart.
The team finds itself in the same position as last year when they faced OKC. Then they split both home and road stands, only to go ice cold in game five down the stretch. Hopefully they exercise some demons on Tuesday.
- Jonathan Simmons vs Eric Gordon had like 12 straight between them for a second. ↩