I have listened to 22 years of basketball punditry. The handful of oft-repeated television tenets are burned in my brain, deep in the crevices of my mind: will to win, carrying the team on your back, finding a way.
I cannot help but think about those things on a night like this, where the Spurs simultaneously confirmed and refuted those tenets. Manu Ginobili played outside of his mind in winning time. Kawhi Leonard did not play through the pain of a sprained ankle. James Harden did not rise to the occasion.
I personally have not played at anything resembling a high level of any sport, and yet I have looked into teammates’ eyes and seen that the moment was simply to big for them. I cannot imagine the pressure of an NBA playoff game, having bricked a game-winning three in a rec league game 2 years ago myself.
Sometimes a person is at the mercy of circumstance, and they are left feeling betrayed by Lady Luck herself. Tonight an MVP-candidate had an awful 4th quarter and overtime period in a pivotal road game five. He was clamped up by a former D-leaguer, and a 39-year old HOFer who was averaging 3-points per game this series.
For all of James Harden’s career and season accolades, I am sure he would trade them all for Eric Gordon to make the three that would have put the Rockets up by one with 15 seconds or so. That is this game we love.
Late in the fourth quarter Manu Ginobili drove by Clint Capela, newly minted shot-blocking force, and finger-rolled a classic Manu layup. He drove accross the paint — all elbows — and deftly flicked the ball off the glass with enough spin to put it in the basket. This, and not that righty dunk, was the most important offensive basket considering the moment.
Manu has never been scared of the moment, and up until recently he had the requisite athletic ability to shine therein. That is life.
Game five had a few vintage Manu moments, but one of the things that is going to be lost when he is long retired is how inspiring he is to his teammates. Usually when Manu is making plays, the rest of the team follows. That 2005 Big Shot Bob three? Manu drew the double-team because he was on fire down the stretch. Tonight Patty and Danny Green and LaMarcus Aldridge made gigantic shots in the final minutes. If any of those guys miss, then we would have a repeat of last year’s semifinal game 5 that saw Tony Parker miss a free throw and a 20-ft jumper in the final minutes.
The game is the game. Make or miss league. Etcetera.
The halftime score was 60-58 Rockets, the pace was played at the Rockets preference. Pop tried his big lineups, tried his small lineups, played Simmons, benched Murray, encouraged a faster pace, and saw his team pull out the game in the most awful offensive OT by two good teams. It all could have backfired if some Houston shots went in, or some San Antonio shots missed.
There are few surprises after five games of playoff basketball. The adjustments have been made, the injures had, and the sicknesses overcome. The Spurs are still defending Harden the same way they have all series. Aldridge was in space with him the same way he was in games one and four. The Rockets attacked the hoop and fired a ton of three point attempts.
The Spurs’ advantage was always their superior size and disciplined on both ends. The Rockets rely on their superior shot-making ability and talent advantage on the wings. Tonight the Spurs benefitted from their size on the offensive glass, while the Rockets stretched the Spurs out and got to the rim and countered threats with long range bombs off of kick outs. That is to say that both teams played their game and only just slightly bothered the other. It came down to shot-making.
In the final stretch, the Ryan Anderson and Lou Williams both missed catch-and-shoot threes. That was the difference between a 10-point Rocket advantage and the three points it was with 5 minutes left to go. Danny missed, Ariza missed, Danny again, Manu missed, then Aldridge got a put-back.
It was frustrating and illogical at some points. I mean, with three minutes left and the Spurs down one, LMA had the ball in the restricted area, pumped and passed out to Patty Mills for corner three … that he missed. James Harden took the ball down and got a huge bucket at the rim for a three point lead that felt gaping.
I do not mean to recite the final minutes play-by-play here, but I want to point out the moments that each team missed what could have been game-deciding buckets.
Patty Mills drove down and made only 1-of-2 after Harden got the big bucket. It was 96-94 at that moment. Both teams’ fans on twitter were feeling like they were letting the game slip away.
Eric Gordon beat the buzzer for a back-breaking three. Until Patty got his 20th point with one of his own. Kevin Harlan had just finished saying that the Spurs had missed their last nine when Patty was rising in Beverley’s face to pull that shot.
James Harden had his team up 99-97 hen he drove on Aldridge and dished to Beverley in the corner — a deadly spot — but the pass was too far off and Bev stepped out of bounds. The Rockets have literally run that play hundreds of times this season with lots of success. Then Aldridge floats a risky lefty floater over Eric Gordon — the kind that I have seen him miss a ton of times. It is tied. Lady Luck.
Kawhi then misses a lefty scoop because his ankle does not let him get lift. Then Patty fouls Harden on the screen. Harden gets cheap free throws, just like he has all season. In an alternate universe the headlines say something to that effect.
Enter Manu, who gets a huge bucket like Kawhi did the last series. Kawhi passed the ball over to Ginobili with 10 seconds on the shot clock after getting the ball as the first option on the early action. If Kawhi is not gimpy there, this would be his moment. Instead we called on Manu and he delivered.
Mr. Can’t Go Back took the charge of the game. If you are Houston fan, this is where you complain about the refs and the play-calling. Instead of going 2-for-1, James Harden went right at Simmons.
The Spurs followed that with a silly possession that ended without a legal shot.
That defensive play was not a luck thing. In the post-game scrum they asked Jonathan if he was the Harden-stopper, and he quickly declined that implication.
Kawhi was benched. He was not much of a decoy when he was battling through the injury, nor was he very effective defensively. In a game where the Spurs are struggling to find guys to cover ground, playing Kawhi had little upside. It is the kind of move that Pop often gets praise for, but can backfire and fuels the anti-Popovich faction that likes to point out the awful flameouts in Spurs history under his watch.
Whoever won this game was going to feel fortunate. Manu was still cooking, just not scoring. He pump-faked a shot, drove, then dealt Danny a smooth behind-the-back pass. Danny missed.
The Rockets continued their insistence on running with Harden, who was exhausted and had no legs for his jumpers. The Spurs got offensive rebounds but could not hit anything.
Aldridge turns it over just under three minutes. Harden leaves a three short.
Neither team is proud of these possessions.
Manu got to the bucket and produced a chance for Aldridge to tip the ball in. It was called interference. There were more than a few situations that went against both squads.
A few seconds later Harden Euro-steps into a pass to the corner for Beverly — the kind of pass I mentioned earlier that was usually successful. Here it felt like a back-breaker. It might as well have been a ten-point shot for all the distance 3-points felt at that time. The Spurs were in a drought extending back to the fourth.
Then Simmons made a play. He got himself two free throws out of it. Then a Manu steal on Harden’s kick out pass. Then Danny with a 26-footer. The lead!
The camera pans to a woman screaming. I feel the same way. She is me. I am her.
Oh then Harden gets a hockey assist to Anderson’s three. Spurs are down two under a minute. Then Danny Green attacks Harden’s close out and gets a bucket and a homer call And-1.
The Spurs are looking for a stop against a team that rained down 22 and 19 threes in two games against them this week. Eric Gordon goes cold. I am briefly reminded of one of the regular season games where he missed from a very similar spot in a very similar situation.
I did not like the reductive nature of the series analysis by the NBA blogosphere: Rockets will win or lose by the number of threes they make. Sure, but that applies to the Spurs also. Patty Mills made 2 of 5 threes in the last game. Tonight he went 5/12. The Rockets made only three fewer threes this game than last.
For all the fire-power on D’Antoni’s squad, he only went 7-deep in a game that went to OT. That decision contributed to the poor offense late. Everyone was gassed and threes are harder to make when the legs are gone.
Either of these teams could have won this game. Either of these teams deserved to lose. Houston will feel the more aggrieved, though. The Spurs lost their MVP in the most crucial moment and got contributions from everyone that was maligned this postseason.
Aldridge had 18 and 14 including 9 offensive rebounds. Simmons had 12 and 3 steals, including his shutdown of Harden late. Patty had 20 and Danny made up for getting roasted defensively by getting seven huge OT points.
The defense was fantastic. The offense was good early, but struggled late. Kawhi said he is going to play next game, but if he is not healthy enough to play at a good enough level to carry this team the Spurs are going to be underdogs for the next two games, let alone against the rested, over-talented Dubs.
If Kawhi is able to contribute (he had 22 and 25!), I cannot see the Rockets bowing out easily in Houston. Their bench mob will play much better. Gordon, Ariza, and Lou Williams combined for only 26 points. Gordon had 22 by himself last game.
I picked Spurs in six and so will stick with that. I also predicted we would question any and everything we believed. And lo, it has come to pass.