On the heels of their Game 5 win over the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich decided to list gimpy small forward Kawhi Leonard as "questionable" with a sprained ankle, a tweaked limb that kept him on the bench for the final moments of regulation and all of overtime in the Spurs' Game 5 win.
It was widely thought by most who were unassociated with the Spurs that this designation was window dressing, that Leonard would indeed play in a Game 6 that could close out the Rockets and get the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals. "Why let this thing go to a Game 7?" was the conventional thought.
Of course, anyone who knows how Popovich operates correctly thought the exact opposite...and they were right. It was announced an hour before tipoff that Leonard would stay on the bench for Game 6, triggering the completely expected reaction from overzealous NBA fans — people making plans for Game 7 Sunday on Twitter, the point spread jumping from Rockets -7 to -8.5, and the like.
Have we not all watched the Spurs for the past two decades?
Honestly, with both of the Spurs' former NBA Finals MVPs on their roster down with injuries, we should have known this was coming. The Rockets' 55 regular season wins and James Harden's near MVP season weren't gonna matter last night. In what appeared to be more of a cruel experiment to see how much of the six months of goodwill they'd built up that they could forfeit back in one night, the Rockets laid a gargantuan egg at home, losing 114-75 in their final game of the season.
From an X's-and-O's standpoint, there's practically nothing to analyze from this game. It was a wipeout from jump, with the Rockets channeling the empty tank of energy that was Toyota Center, thanks to a casually late-arriving crowd (disgraceful, by the way, if you had a lower bowl ticket and arrived in, say, the second quarter).
James Harden would foul out, shooting 2 for 11 from the field, with no two-point field goals, and fewer points (10) than Spurs backup point guard Dejounte Murray (11). Meanwhile, the Spurs would win each of the four quarters as a team, and the Rockets would dot the box score with a myriad of stylistic red flags (like finishing with a higher three-point field goal percentage, 32.5 percent, than OVERALL field goal percentage, 28.6 percent). Somewhere, the anti-analytic folks are pouring hot sauce all over the Rockets and devouring their organizational game plan whole.
This one will hurt for a while. In the barely rational world of postgame Twitter, you may as well have erased the entire 2016-2017 season, which is kind of silly, but predictable. In this "Warriors, LeBron, then everybody else" NBA world we live in, the question isn't so much "What's the next move, or moves, for the Rockets to get into that upper class?" but instead "Does that move even exist?"
Now, winners and losers....
4. LaMarcus Aldridge
With no Leonard and no Parker, it was going to be incumbent upon Aldridge to finally go into what my friend R.J. Bell (founder of pregame.com) likes to call "dad mode," in which the player is just physically superior to anyone checking him, allowing him to impose his will. Aldridge finally did that on Thursday, after a largely passive series, scoring 34 points on 16 of 26 shooting and gathering 12 rebounds. This is why they paid him all that money two off-seasons ago.
3. Jonathon Simmons
I love Jonathon Simmons, but I hate Jonathon Simmons. I love him because he is the quintessential underdog, having taken the road barely traveled to get to the NBA — through the ABL to the D League to the back end of Pop's bench to scoring 18 points and checking the hell out of James Harden in a close-out game IN SIMMONS's HOMETOWN! That last part, the part where he scores all sorts of key buckets and makes James Harden into an aimless, over-dribbling robot, that's why I hate Simmons.
2. LeBron James
The top four for the MVP voting will be some permutation of Russell Westbrook (the likely winner), James Harden (likely runner-up), Leonard and LeBron. The top two players on that list are watching the conference finals at home, the third one just watched his team close out a series on the road by 39 points WITHOUT HIM. The other one is LeBron, who has now officially crossed over into "doesn't get the MVP award because voters are bored with voting for him" territory, and is averaging nearly a triple double this postseason in leading his team to two sweeps.
1. Gregg Popovich
This whole series was like the basketball gods kept throwing the Trials of Naismith at Popovich and he adapted and won every time. Lose Game 1 by 27? Fine, tweak the lineup and win Game 2 by 25. Lose Tony Parker in Game 2? No problem, adapt and find a way to win three of the next four. Lose Kawhi Leonard to a sprained ankle in Game 5? Got it, win in overtime and then rest Leonard and win by 39 on the road in Game 6. Popovich is the best to ever do it.
4. Mike D'Antoni
While Popovich was adjusting swimmingly to life without a Hall of Fame point guard and a first team all-NBA forward by mixing in seldom-used bench players who had established some degree of trust throughout the regular season, D'Antoni was watching his team crumble under the weight of losing...NENE. Hey, no disrespect to Nene, but losing him shouldn't have caused the seeming ripple effect that it may have. The Rockets definitely missed having a viable scoring presence in the paint, and D'Antoni didn't really have any chess moves other than moving Ryan Anderson to the bench so he could be the five on the second unit, a move he scrapped in the second half of Game 6. D'Antoni had a wonderful regular season, and I think his positive demeanor and temperament were what this team probably needed coming off of the storm clouds of the Dwight Howard era, but this series (and Thursday night, particularly) was all of his nightmares wrapped up in two weeks.
3. Ryan Anderson
Ryan Anderson made 3 of 29 three-point field goal attempts at home in the playoffs. In six home playoff games, he had exactly ZERO three point field goals in five of them. This came after a regular season in which Anderson shot about 15 percent better from distance on the road than he did at home. See, this is a big goddamn problem since a) Anderson is here basically to JUST shoot three pointers, b) Anderson makes $20 million per year, c) Anderson is under contract for three more years, and d) the Rockets will continue to play their home games AT HOME for the foreseeable future. People will dog James Harden for how the last game of the season went, and that's fine, but the bigger long-term problem is upgrading the forward position on this team (looking at you, too, Trevor Ariza).
2. This poor bastard.....
Sorry, I need some goddamn comic relief...thankfully, the Rockets' arena graphics team brought it tonight....
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As if being a Rockets fan tonight wasn't painful enough pic.twitter.com/1UvMhQ46CV— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 12, 2017
1. James Harden
Even among people who call themselves "Rockets fans," James Harden is a very polarizing figure. While he is a delightful offensive player, a very good rebounder and (yes) a bit of an underrated defender (mainly because his rating with most is "abysmal," which he is not), there are many who still can't reconcile that a guy who seems SO laid-back wants to win as urgently and lead as urgently as Harden says he does. This whole regular season and the first ten games of the postseason, until late in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of this series, was a seven-month force feeding for the Harden haters that maybe, just MAYBE, he had matured and was ready to embed himself among the pantheon of great NBA players. However, if Harden's 2016-2017 journey was being scribbled on a white board, then last night was like a giant eraser for all of his skeptics.
I am a believer in James Harden, so that was tough to watch last night. It was like watching one of your kids in a spelling bee, and he or she forgot the alphabet. It hurt. Harden will bounce back, he will be an MVP candidate again, because attention spans are short and the hype machine won't hold Game 6 against him, the same way it didn't hold 13 turnovers in a close-out game two seasons ago or 41-41 last season against him in 2016-2017. But Rockets fans will have a long memory, and until he is a catalyst for something significant in a postseason run, he will sit outside the velvet rope of Club Beloved Rocket, watching the 1994 and 1995 title teams sipping drinks with Calvin Murphy and the ghost of Moses Malone.
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.