First, let us get this out of the way:
I'm screaming. 😭😭😭😭😭😭 pic.twitter.com/jmVlu0sTOY
— Uba, MJ (@ubathediplomat) May 12, 2017
One of my earliest Spurs basketball memories was the infamous 1995 Spurs-Rockets tussle. This, especially after the game one destruction, was sweet. The Rockets and Spurs have avoided each other over the last 20+ years mostly because Houston has been fairly poor. With the Mavericks returning to near-irrelevance, it is fun to be Kings of Texas again.
While I predicted the Spurs to win in six and in doing so questioning everyone and everything, I both fully expected a loss tonight but would not have been surprised by a win. As much as I believe in the Spurs Way, talent is important and the Spurs are down their own MVP candidate. As it was, this series began with San Antonio questioning the heart and ability of LaMarcus Aldridge in a 25+ point loss, and ended with the Rockets questioning the heart and ability of James Harden in a 39-point loss.
On twitter, the argument is already being made that this series turned in the last minute of Game 5. This is true and unsurprising because that is basketball. Entire fortunes, careers, and legacies have and will be made on the bounce of the ball 1.
Playoff basketball is also very different than regular season ball and we have seen this most obviously in the Rockets’ performance this postseason against both the Thunder and the Spurs.
The postseason is tougher (obviously) because teams are better, more focused, and time to adjust. The Spurs took away some of the bread-and-butter stuff the Rockets like — the fouls on James Harden — and dared the 6-8th man to beat them consistently. Those other guys did beat San Antonio in games one and four, but they did not over the series.
That is both the beautiful and frustrating thing about a seven-game series. Any random guy can get hot for a game and beat you, but it is less likely that that same random guy will get hot for four out of seven.
Game Six was about James Harden’s no-show when Kawhi was out with a bum ankle. We all had a feeling that Pop was going to sit Kawhi for a (probably) seventh and deciding game. The Rockets were favored to win and the best we could probably hope for was a strong first half before the Rockets’ superior depth took over.
But it never happened. James Harden was in a funk 2 and the rest of the Houston squad had nothing for Jonathan Simmons and LaMarcus Aldridge in the second quarter.
Pundits nearly universally characterized the Spurs and Rockets as one-man shows. The Spurs were (overly) dependent on Kawhi for points and the Rockets (by design) reliant on James Harden’s ability to create. The real story was that the Spurs do rely on Kawhi because he is so good and efficient. The Rockets hit another gear once James Harden sits and the bench mob could come in and obliterate the opposing second team.
Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, and the rest of the Houston guys were bad more often this series than they were good. There is the story. When Kawhi was hurt in game five until the buzzer sounded at the end of the fourth in game six, Jonathan Simmons and the others outplayed the entire Rockets team.
Welcome Back, LaMarcus
On Zach Lowe’s podcast, Jeff Van Gundy mentioned LMA has been shooting off-balance. After the game LaMarcus said he benefited from getting so many touches and was able to find his rhythm much easier. I am sure it is combination of both of these. If Ryan Anderson was able to bother Aldridge so much in the first game, I imagine Draymond Green will shut him down in the next series. That said, maybe a different offensive approach will help solve the great defensive question that is GSW. That is for another blog post, however.
Right now, let us appreciate the Aldridge we last saw a year ago in the second game of the Thunder series. He scored 40 then, and got 34 tonight. His jumper was falling, which makes everything easier, but he also was scoring within the restricted area.
He has improved from his poor game one performance in each game, but tonight he finally put up the numbers we thought would be required nightly to win the series.
If Tony Parker was the surprise of the first round (that sounds ridiculous but that is where he is in his career), then Simmons is the star of this one. He is a fan favorite because of his hustle and his highlight reels, but he spends more than a few weeks in Pop’s doghouse throughout the season (Dewayne Dedmon does also). This week, we saw the best of J Simms, as he did his best Kawhi impression defending James Harden and getting buckets (18 points!) on the other end.
If you told me our small forward would hold Harden to to one bucket and about 8 turnovers to end game five and start game six while also contributing huge buckets on the other end I would have been unsurprised. “Yes, Kawhi is great. That is what I expect.” That is how good Jonathan Simmons was these last two games.
When he raises his three point percentage about 10 points, he will be really good.
Quick GSW Thoughts
As well as our favorite team played tonight, a good portion of the last two wins were because of Rockets flaws. Golden State has few flaws, and those few are masked by otherworldly talent.
Steph Curry is prone to tossing carless passes like James Harden, but Klay Thompson will not have as many no-show games as Eric Gordon. Danny Green got roasted for buckets by Lou Williams and Eric Gordon in game four, that is going to be Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant (whom Kawhi could not stop last year).
The Spurs blew out the Warriors in the first game of the year but GSW has gelled since, and managed to comeback from a 20-point deficit early in March. That was sans-KD. He is back, and looking like the un-guardable 7-footer he is. The Jazz were something like Spurs-lite, and only managed to be down 10 after some really impressive stretches. The Spurs have more all-around talent than Utah — Aldridge is more offensively talented than Gobert, and Kawhi is more athletic than Gordon Hayward and equal in shooting — but is coming off a tough series and dealing with injuries.
Golden State is heavily favored to win the next round for many good reasons. While the Spurs’ defense should slow them down, the question will be if SA can manage enough scoring. Manu mentioned this in the post-game.
Last year the Spurs held the 73-win Dubs to some of their lowest scoring outputs all year, and set the blueprint for guarding the Steph/Draymond pick-and-roll. They switched Aldridge out to Steph and trusted him to slow Curry enough. For all the criticism the Spurs have gotten during this Rockets series, they held Houston to three of their lowest scoring outputs all year.
The question in the next round will be if SA can score enough on the switch-everything length the Warriors have.
Right now, let us enjoy the tough series win.
- Do the Spurs three-peat in the mid-2000s if Derek Fisher misses that .4 shot? What if Bob Horry misses the three against Detroit? He missed a very similar one in 2003 after the Lakers made a 16-point comeback to make it a 2-point deficit with seconds to go. ↩
- I am being very generous here. I have seen some people say it was point shaving, poison, sickness, injury, and more. ↩