Kawhi And Harden No Shows: Spurs 114 Rockets 75

First, let us get this out of the way:

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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.

Jonathan Simmons

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.


  1. 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. 
  2. I am being very generous here. I have seen some people say it was point shaving, poison, sickness, injury, and more. 

MANU: Game 5 Spurs 110 Rockets 107

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. 1 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 Game

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.

Jonathan Simmons

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.

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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.

Still:

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Overtime

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.

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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.

Future

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.


  1. John Starks, Vice Carter circa 2001, Brent Barry circa 2008 

Gm 4: Rockets 125 Spurs 104

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

Defense

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.

Lou Williams

This was much earlier and fast break points, but Pop was very upset with this.

Harden Dunk

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.

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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.

Future

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.


  1. Jonathan Simmons vs Eric Gordon had like 12 straight between them for a second. 

Gm 3: Spurs 105 Rockets 92

Patrick Beverly annoys me in video games. I played as the Thunder and my cousin as the Rockets, and when he put Bev on Westbrook he frustrated me with steals and tough defense. This was a couple of months ago and ever since I have irrationally not liked the real version either, after having previously had no opinion of him other than that he looks like a mechanic 1.

In Game 1, we knew Patrick Beverly was going to bother Tony Parker after giving the presumptive MVP a hard time in round one. And so it came to pass. TP didn’t have his best game, getting ripped and even blocked (by Lou Williams, no less). Was it Beverly or was it just a bad game? A little of both, probably.

Tony got the better of The Mechanic on Wednesday but obviously will not be able to continue this little battle. Enter Dejounte Murray, rookie PG with no fear. Before the game he reportedly told Pop “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

As it was, he may have been mentally fine, but The Mechanic was in the dude’s chest for every minute of the first quarter, getting two steals, forcing Murray to think about things and get a little rattled after a while. Dejounte lost the ball while turning on a fast break with no one around him.

Beverly does not let you get comfortable with your dribble, and his style of defense takes some time to adjust to. Tony Parker needed a game, and Dejounte Murray probably needs one as well. The good news is that people can adjust to anything after some time. The Spurs adjusted to Memphis’ physicality and size but then needed time to adjust to the Rockets pace and space. So it goes.

My gut was telling me the Spurs were in for a beating tonight. Tony Parker is and will be missing and this is the first game that adjustments begin. This is not a regular season rotation experiment, but a playoff game wherein the opposing coaching staff is doing scouting for all of your options full-time. The game three bump happened only for Harden, who scored 43 points and found his three point shooting stroke again. The Spurs missed something like 100 jumpers (actually they shot 9/26 or 34% from the field, including 1/8 from three) in a quarter that Pop called “the worst display off offense I’ve ever seen.”

The entire first half was ugly, although the Spurs played better in the second. The squad managed 43 at the half (to the Rockets 39). That is only four points more than they managed in the first half of game one. While the Spurs offense was not producing buckets, it was patient and focused. That, remember, was the key to winning the second game.

LaMarcus Aldridge made a welcome appearance as an All-Star quality forward in this one. He was assertively shooting his turnaround, his catch-and-shoot 20-footers, and even tried a couple of threes. The team made a concerted effort to get him the ball in his spots, and out of timeouts, so credit is due all around. Pau is a great passer and has been great sneaking good passes to him for buckets. He did so last game, and slipped the bounce pass to Aldridge late in the fourth that was was an three point play.

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Kawhi finished 9/20 and missed two free throws. This, in his terms, was an off-night but he managed to be amazing anyway. After 19 years of overlooking the consistent greatness of Tim Duncan, I am making it a point to appreciate the Kawhi brilliance.

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Of course the other guys stepped up and made plays. Jonathan Simmons had that above, a clutch end-of-quarter three, and a great pass to LMA for a bucket. Outside of Trevor Ariza’s 12 points (five of five from deep) the Rockets were outplayed by the Spurs bench + other guys. It made all the post Game One reaction to the blowout seem knowing and not simply just player-speak. “It was just one game, we have to go out and do better.” That seemed trite but as Chris Paul might say, what do you expect them to say?

It remains no less true after this game, also. To win a series you need to win four, and so far the Spurs have simply won two. There is more work to do. Mike D’Antoni should make adjustments, but I have seen some people question his ability to do so.

The one adjustment they did make coming into Houston, was to attack Pau more violently.

Rockets Adjustments

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Harden, after missing more than a few layups in the second game, looked to dunk the ball more often instead of laying it in. That isn’t to say that James did not get layups this time because he did. Ariza was more forceful also. Tellingly, as was highlighted by the ESPN crew, the Spurs forced more midrange shots than the Rockets typically enjoy.

Look at the shot charts for game one and game five. Look at those midrange attempts.

Shot Chart Comparison

Remember the difference in playoff games is a handful of shots, usually. Taking even five more shots at midrange is better for San Antonio than the Rockets shooting five more threes, or five more layups.

Of course it also helped that the Spurs have insisted on not letting James Harden bait them into cheap fouls, where he can go to the line and rack up free threw attempts. He was more than a little frustrated with the calls he wasn’t getting and that is great.

Defense

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That is quality defense. Grant Hill commented on how the Spurs were using their anti-Suns defense from the mid-2000s. Then, then stuck to the Suns’ shooters and played two vs two. Then it was Nash/Amaré and now it is Harden/Capela. The Beard had 43 last night, and it was not near enough. When he tried to force a pass here and there, Patty got a steal, or nothing happened. Ryan Anderson, he of the 16 points per game average in San Antonio, managed just two.

In Game Four the Rockets will shoot a little better, but so should the Spurs.


  1. Every time my cousin got a steal with Bev he shouted ‘THE MECHANIC’ and I laughed and got angry at the same time. Lesson: Do not play video games. 

Game 2: Spurs 121 Rockets 96

Spurs twitter all but traded LaMarcus Aldridge over the last two days. I’ve seen and heard the local radio guy question the man’s work ethic, integrity, passion and skill.

That criticism is part of the gig, I suppose. You get paid like an All-Star, and you get criticized like one. Although Tim is getting the soft glow of retirement and memories now, I vividly remember the vitriol he received when he had bad games. My old boss bitterly complained about Tim being soft as Pop patted Tim’s knee after the squad got blown out in Game 4 of the 2005 NBA Finals.

“That’s a bad look. He needs Pop to kiss his boo-boo? Spurs are too soft.”

I tweeted that the adjustments after game one really came down to the Spurs playing better. That sounds like a silly thing to say when basketbloggers are out here doing Gif breakdowns and analyzing five-man lineup +/- numbers. I think it proved true.

Some of the analysis got it right when they looked at it with what Pop said about the game: it was the offense that hurt the Spurs the most.

Manu, Patty, Tony, Pau, and LaMarcus all mentioned pace, patience and playing smarter as keys to containing the Rockets.

So it was.

Pop started Pau, LMA was decisive, and the offense was more patient and disciplined. Oh, and Danny Green was hitting his open looks. The game is really simple, y’all.

The Spurs were able to slow the pace enough to force the Rockets to run their offense in the half-court instead of playing a glorified pick up game and walking into uncontested threes. The interesting thing was that Ryan Anderson still shot the hell out of the ball, and Clint Capela still got a few roll man opportunities. And Eric Gordon was scoring. The Spurs simply outscored them.

Rockets scores by quarter: 30, 25, 28, 13
Spurs by quarter: 33, 33, 23, 33.

I wrote that the Rockets really won game one in the second 1. The Spurs obviously won game two in the final period.

As you see, the team doesn’t need to completely shut down this Rockets squad, but merely slow them. Yes, obviously running good plays should result in buckets, but good looks are all you can ask for. Good shots mean predictable rebounds, and/or at least a chance to get the defense set. That’s essentially what happened tonight.

Adjustments

Pop started Gasol, and joked that it was not going to change the universe. It didn’t, but it allowed Gasol to do two things:

  1. Space the floor for Aldridge. Pau made them pay with an elbow jumper early. He also was shooting from three instead of passing it up.
  2. Protect the rim. Pau has long been decent at rim protection as long as he can simply stand there and be tall. The Rockets didn’t pull him into PNRs 2 and so he was able to thwart a Harden drive (block!) and a Capela roll early which set the tone. He finished with 13 rebounds and four blocks.

Aldridge was better, but not amazing. Shaq was calling for mid-twenties scoring as a benchmark but as I wrote in the series preview, I just want 18/10 from him. He had 15/8 tonight. 3 That’s enough. He was decisive, efficient, and made plays.

Obviously the elephant in the room is the Parker injury. He was great tonight, scoring 18 after getting harassed in the first game. He attacked Beverly and Lou Williams after misses, pushed the pace but also got buckets as an outlet man when the ball found him. Manu, Patty and Pop all suggested the injury is bad and will keep him out for a long while. That changes the calculus this postseason, as everyone will need to give more. Tony has been good thus far, with only two bad games of the eight.

Danny Green was light years better, not only hitting threes but defending well. He attacked Harden and got layups. When he is making midrange jumpers you know it’s a good night.

The centerpiece was obviously Kawhi, who put in work again. He had 34 on 13/16, 8 assists and 7 rebounds. Oh yeah and he didn’t foul Harden in all his minutes guarding Mr. Flop. For his part, Harden did not play very well, only managing 13 — a career low as a starter. He was sick and a bit hurt but he wasn’t the primary Spur killer in game one anyway. That sounds silly considering his line, but the theme of the Houston playoff run this year is the quality they have when Harden sits.

So let’s attempt to build this narrative. The Spurs did not allow as many threes, chased the Rockets off some others, and challenged more shots at the rim. Harden said he didn’t hit his layups, which was true. Some of that was him, some was Kawhi, and some was Pau and company making it difficult. That combination of things is how the Spurs will win. It’s subtle but basketball is about the trends, not an individual play here and there. The Rockets missing 5% of their shots changes the entire game.

Next

This entire series has changed now that Parker is down. In the regular season the staff pressed Murray into service with good results. They aren’t playing Sacramento, however. Tony Parker isn’t his old self, but he was bringing calm, poise, and a renewed scoring punch. Also underrated? His defensive effort. He is not Beverley, but he makes his man work on offense. I believe in Dejounte Murray but I do not see him being ready to lead this team to the next round. He probably will get a quick look, but Pop will have the hook ready. Patty, some combination of Manu and Slo Mo will be the answer for now. And yes, Kawhi will be asked to do even more call handling.

The Rockets, Warriors and Mr Basketball IQ himself, LeBron are all too good to not take advantage of a rookie PG, no matter how unafraid of the moment he is. That said, it may not matter. He might get tossed into the fire anyway.


  1. Which makes all those clips of the game in the third and fourth less impactful to me. 
  2. I mostly mean the Rockets did not get Gasol out in space. They tried to pull him into the PNRs, but he stayed back in the lane and waited for Harden. Leonard is good at getting over those. Zach Lowe mentioned this as a change up — especially for Gasol. David Lee won’t be useful, because he’s not a rim protector. 
  3. I wrote this:

    When the Spurs accentuate their strengths, LMA is getting 15/9, making under-the-radar defensive plays, Kawhi is dominating, and shooters are feasting on open looks.

Spurs – Rockets Thoughts

In some future iteration of the Spurs, maybe Kawhi completes his training with a lesson on Lebron-like play making, where we can surround him with shooters and dominate offensively.

Until then, the Spurs are going with a 90-era big man game. (The Spurs have been good so long that Pop can throw it back to previous pages in his playbook). This version includes more shooting big men in LMA and Pau but still relies on size inside.

The peculiar thing about Memphis was that they were the doing the same thing as the Spurs. This, among other things, makes them a bad match up for nearly every team. When a team plays solid, smart basketball and accentuates its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses, it is a tough team to beat. If that seems reductive and easy, then yes, you have realized that this game is a simple one.

The Spurs’ weaknesses are age, overall athleticism, and versatility. This has been known. Pau is immobile and a liability defensively. He does not score enough to mitigate this defensive liabilities and so we see the similarly one-dimensional Dewayne Dedmon starting (usually). David Lee brings enough energy to make up for mistakes, or relatively limited offensive game to get hustle points. Still, the Rockets won’t scheme to stop the team from running the offense through Lee.

Of the Spurs’ ball handlers, Tony Parker had the worst regular season of the two starters (Kawhi being the other). Manu was good enough, but has had all of 11 minutes of quality play in six games. Patty has been feast-or-famine, and if he is not hitting open jumpers he is only a liability defensively. Danny Green brings defense, and so if his jumper is broke all is not lost, but his missing threes is one of the most frustrating things to see for every SA fan.

Aldridge needs room to operate, and can hit the pick-and-pop, but is not enough of a defensive presence inside to build a defense around. His mobility outside has been good, but without Tim protecting the rim, the Spurs have looked a little vulnerable. Dewayne Dedmon is not a rock inside, even if he has been useful.

We know all of the above because we have watched this team for 88 games now. It is easy to forget that they won 65 of those. That’s pretty damned ridiculous. Kawhi has carried the load, and it is easy to get worried about that notion until you remember that the Spurs won a couple of titles with that formula. The Cavs nearly did the same two years ago. It is possible, though difficult. Complaining about help is futile until the offseason arrives and the negotiations can begin. The team is the team.

The strengths then, are these. Kawhi is the best two-way player in this league night-to-night (Bron and Durant can do something similar, but do not every night). Aldridge can still get 40 on his night, brings big-man mobility, and a high basketball IQ. Pau and Manu bring savvy, competitiveness, and passing. The rest of the roster brings shooting, defense, energy, and enough pieces to match up against most of the league’s problems.

Kawhi is on a run of offensive efficiency and explosiveness not seen since Peak Tim in the early aughts or Dave Robinson in the mid 90s. I hope you are enjoying the spectacle.

Tony can be 95 Clyde Drexler, 2011 Jason Kidd, 2006 Gary Payton, shadows of their peak greatness but still effective, savvy veterans who have gas in the tank.

If LaMarcus can’t be a 20/10 guy as a secondary scorer, if he can pull out the glimpses of defensive stopper he showed in the regular season, combined with the timely bucket-getter he has always been, the Spurs will be fine. If the knock on LMA was that he wilted as the primary guy in POR, maybe being the second guy is more suitable. He isn’t as ferociously competitive or versatile as 2008 (same age then as LMA now) Kevin Garnett, but he does not have to be. He is versatile enough and just needs enough desire as by-product of the competitor that is Manu or Kawhi.

When the Spurs accentuate their strengths, LMA is getting 15/9, making under-the-radar defensive plays, Kawhi is dominating, and shooters are feasting on open looks.

While the Rockets will stretch the Spurs, they do not have the athletic advantage Amaré had over Duncan, which was one aspect that gave the Spurs so much trouble. Capela is not a bum, but he is not an offensive force like peak Stoudemire was, and any combination of Nene/Anderson with Harden approaches the force that was Nash/Amaré (when it comes to these Spurs).

Ultimately, what gives everyone pause is the thinking that Kawhi needs more guys to hit shots, which was and is the story of every super star. See the Chris Paul postmortems this morning.The Spurs shot a league-best from three this season, but had a couple of struggle-fests in Memphis. The key to those games was not that the shots were missed, but that they were wide-open misses. This still is a make-or-miss league and all you can ask for is a good look at the cup. LaMarcus had a difficult matchup against two quality 7-footers who like to bang inside (not too different than the problems posed by the Thunder last season, which explains a lot).

The Spurs coaching staff and roster has proven that they will make you take the toughest looks in the league. Meanwhile the Rockets are built to maximize the variance that is making of the toughest looks in the league — the longest distance three. If the Spurs go down because Ryan Anderson is making 35-footers then so be it.

Spurs in 6. A tough six where we question everything and everyone a la the Memphis series.

Election Week Delayed Me; Now Some Thoughts

This was a tough week to deal with. Aside from that, the Spurs had lost back-to-back at home.

Against the Rockets at home, there was another first half deficit to over come, some poor defensive rotations, and a chance to win the game at the end.

Right now we are falling into one of two camps: the first is the It’s Early And Everyone Is Hurt the other is Getting Used to All The New Guys. There is some overlap here and I am in that Venn diagram middle.

Everyone is excited about the starting lineup getting together for the first time and the real season beginning.

All that is well and good and probably true. I do not want to put a lot of stock in this transition, but it does concern me that the Spurs are not winning the games they won last year, the games they should win, and instead are giving away large early leads.

Some of it can be blamed on the schedule, but there is not a one-to-one thing going on is there? The Utah home game was inverted, and so we cannot blame the loss on travel, and the Clippers were on a back-to-back also.

So . . .

Right now the GSW look better and more cohesive after Curry found his touch. They still are missing fully operational Klay Thompson, but they are winning. The Spurs are losing. They are struggling with non-Spursy plays.

Houston

On Wednesday the Spurs went down early, fought back, battled back in the third and lost on a last second shot.

There was a sequence in the third quarter where Kahwi was saving himself guarding Corey Brewer and then did not attack James Harden on the offensive end. Sean Elliott noticed it and said it was a missed opportunity. It is the kind of thing that LeBron James would have noticed, with his ridiculous Hoops IQ, and a thing to watch Leonard improve.

There were little things where he was trying that one hand floater and it was just a little off all night. Still, he scored 34.

Gasol increasingly looks like a liability, as Pop had to sit him for comebacks a few games already. I am a little worried about this. This is the kind of thing that is exaggerated in the postseason.

The little things Danny Green did were great to see. He only went 2-8 from three, but ad two straight great defensive plays early in the fourth that were sorely missing from the early Spurs run.

The Spurs were sloppy / unlucky all night and so were the Rockets. James Harden Harden’d and that killed them. He was efficient and got other guys shots, while our guys were struggling for the easy stuff.

Detroit

The story was Gasol getting 21 points, but he had a more even matchup, as Andre Drummond is a more traditional center than any other team has. Still, the Spurs managed to look a bit disjointed as the second unit was weird, and went into half down three.

I liked that there were not as many obvious transition defense breakdowns, but then again Detroit is not really the type to get those. They are lengthy, and tough, and that kind of thing is the Spurs’ strength.

Tony reappeared, giving all of us Parker skeptics a few pangs of regret. He has lost a step, still is too streaky with his jumper, and probably is not as amenable to losing the limelight to Kawhi as he lets on. He still knows this system and can run this team better than Patty Mills.

Bala Pat is faster and has a much sweeter shooting stroke, but he lacks the patience and change of pace that Tony has. It is a subtle thing, but things are a little calmer when TP is in.

Speaking of the old guard, Manu hit back to back threes in the third to push the lead to 8. The first he ste the offense, calming the team after a stretch of frantic play (play that he was a part of). He posted LMA via Simmons, then hit the catch and shoot rhythm three. The second, he did a classic Manu wherein he pump faked 84 times and fired an off-balance shot going to his left.

The game was close but not really in doubt. Tobias Harris attempted to cut the Spurs lead to six but was rejected by Gasol. This is telling in that Gasol was not able to defend Chris Paul or James Harden at the rim. But Tobias Harris is obviously not in their league. So it goes. Spurs win.

at Houston

Shea Serrano wrote a bit about this game through the prism of watching it with his kids.

My earliest memories were watching the Spurs vs Rockets with my little brother and the both of us listening to Stan Kelly’s nasally voice say “2 minutes!”. Good times.

The Spurs brought out the year’s projected starting line up of Tony, Danny, Kawhi, LMA, and Gasol and it looked good early. Everyone was surprisingly fresh which continued that weird streak of unexpected performances in games.

James Harden is good.

You can tell a really good player by how open his teammates get in his presence. Kawhi Leonard is getting to that point, but right now he still gets enough single coverage to do what he likes, wich partly explains his remarkable consistency to work these dudes nightly. Since he has been able to create his own shot — last two years basically — he has taken his game to new heights but has not quite gotten to the Harden levels offensively. This is fine, but just evident when Harden’s forays into the lane focus the entire defense and create wide open shots for role players.

Yes, Harden is light years away from KL defensively.

The Spurs controlled this game the entire way and Parker’s presence was the big story.

“He gets us organized,” Popovich said. “He hasn’t been with us so much this season. He’s just a stability factor, and that was a big help.” Pop