The lament of the average NBA fan watching this Western Conference semifinal series between the Rockets and the Spurs had been the lack of nip-and-tuck nail biters. Up until Tuesday night, three of the four games had been decided by 20 points or more, and all four had been decided by double digits. The series was in a 2-2 deadlock overall, but without any truly close individual game outcomes.
Then came Tuesday night, and if Rockets fans learned one thing in Game 5 it was that maybe it's less painful to get spanked by 25 points than it is to lose the way the Rockets did in San Antonio last night. In a game for which the Rockets will undoubtedly want to strangle themselves after watching it on film, Mike D'Antoni's team let multiple fourth quarter leads (and wide open chances to build on those leads) slip away, before going on to lose in overtime, 110-107.
James Harden looked like the Most Valuable Player in the league for most of regulation, and then all of a sudden in overtime, it was like his soul was possessed by November 2015 Harden, and it was like D'Antoni's soul was possessed by J.B. Bickerstaff. The Rockets, who got to 55 wins this season and the cusp of stealing Game 5 in San Antonio by pushing the pace, all of a sudden decided to slow things down, allow San Antonio to set up defensively each trip, and give Harden a license to play hero-ball for the last minute of regulation and all of overtime, an extra period in which Harden had three of his NINE turnovers on the night.
The loss was made even more painful when you consider that the Spurs played the late portions of regulation and all of overtime with Kawhi Leonard on the bench nursing an ankle injury. (He is expected to play in Game 6. Oh joy.) This was an opportunity placed on a silver platter, and the Rockets allowed themselves to be closed out by Danny Green, Jonathan Simmons, and 39 year old Manu Ginobili.
It was as shameful an overtime performance as I can remember seeing in a big spot. Let's get these winners and losers over with, and move on to Game 6.....
4. Patrick Beverley
The one truly bright spot for the Rockets in the game was the performance of Beverley, whose respect level from me (already high) has soared through the roof over the last three days. After finding out his grandfather had passed away on Sunday, Beverley put in a solid 10-point, 6-rebound game in the Game 4 win. Tuesday night, he followed that up with a 20-point night in which he shot 5-7 from three point range. He was the only truly reliable shooter the Rockets had last night (Ryan Anderson was solid, too, to be fair), and he has balls the size of grapefruits.
3. Danny Green
Green is your quintessential Spur. Plucked off the scrap heap after being cut by the Cavaliers a few years back (and it wasn't even the good Cavs, it was the pre-LeBron return crappy Cavs), Green has become a valued starter, reliable shooter, and solid defender for the Spurs. On Tuesday night, he hit a huge three to put them up 106-104, then after an Anderson three put the Rockets back up, Green had an old fashioned three point play to retake the lead for good. I hate the Spurs.
2. Jonathan Simmons
Oh, and while we are on Spurs scrap heap pickups, shout out to Simmons for having another goddamn Spurs-y game in which he had 12 points, 3 steals, and defended the ever loving hell out of James Harden for large chunks of the game in crunch time. The former UH Cougar has been a real thorn in the Rockets' side this series. i can't wait for some team to sign him to a four year, $60 million offer sheet this offseason, so he can go the hell away! (By the way, if that happens, he will immediately shrivel into an overpriced, bottom tier scrub, because that's what always happens to former Spurs role players in the absence of the magic Coach Pop pixie dust. We call it the "Gary Neal Effect.")
1. Manu Ginobili
Manu Ginobili had 12 points on Tuesday night, and every single one of them felt HUGE. It honestly felt like a lot more than 12 points. However, the signature Manu play of the game came on the game's final play, in which Harden trued to get off a clunky three pointer and Manu blocked the shot from behind....
Have I mentioned.... damn you, Spurs!!
4. Sam Dekker/Montrezl Harrell
In retrospect, considering that they were moving like they were wearing carved out boulders for shoes in the extra period, overtime was the Rockets' undoing. That'll happen when you shorten your bench to just two guys — Ryan Anderson and Lou Williams. At this point, I think one of either Dekker or Harrell (if I had a choice, it'd be Dekker) needs to come in, even if t's just for 10 or 12 minutes to help spread out some rest over a couple sets of legs. I would imagine both guys have to be a little frustrated, considering they both seemed to make noticeable progress in their second seasons in the league. I actually tweeted this after the game....
Can the Rockets please Periscope the exit interviews for Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell when the season is over?— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) May 10, 2017
....and, for what it's worth, Montrezl Harrell LIKED that tweet. For real. Hmmmmmm.
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3. LaMarcus Aldridge
For a guy getting max dollars and someone who was supposed to keep the Spurs in title contention each season, this series has been a terrible look for Aldridge. Tuesday night, he was matched up offensively for most of the game on Harden, Anderson, and even Eric Gordon, at times. Rarely, was he being checked by the Rockets' only legit post big, Clint Capela. With this dynamic in place, Aldridge should have TORN UP the Rockets in the lost post. Instead, he proceeded to soft toss 15 foot bricks all night en route to a 7-21 performance from the field. Aldridge has been unimpressive, and it wouldn't surprise me if the Spurs shopped him around this offseason in an effort to completely retool around Leonard and whatever point guard they sign — Chris Paul? Kyle Lowry? — to replace Tony Parker. They can do better than Aldridge, and as tissue paper-soft as he's become, Aldridge will still be sought after by some teams.
2. Mike D'Antoni
1. Overtime James Harden
These two go hand in hand... the deserved MVP for this season (he won't win it, though) and the deserved Coach of the Year (he will win it) both flaming out at the worst possible time. At times where the Rockets needed plays drawn up, they went into James-massaging-the-ball-for-20-seconds mode and wound up with multiple bad shots down the stretch. On top of that, D'Antoni's decision to go with a seven man rotation backfired the second that the game had to go five more minutes to resolve the outcome. It was like his team couldn't think straight in overtime. This is, unfortunately, some of the collateral damage that comes with D'Antoni as head coach — his unique style is tailor-made to run teams out of the gym and score points freely for the first 44 minutes or so of the game. However, when it tightens up down the stretch of close games, half court sets against good teams (like the Spurs) become problematic. They were last night, at least.
Game 6 tips off at 7 p.m. Thursday night.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.