2017 NBA Playoffs: Rockets 126, Spurs 99 — 4 Winners, 4 Losers
With respect to a Rockets-Spurs playoff series, here are three things that feel or sound hard to believe:
1. The last time these two teams met in the postseason was during the Rockets' improbable run to their second NBA championship (a run that you can read about in its glorious entirety in my oral history of it from a couple of years ago), when the sixth-seeded Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon eviscerated 1994-95 MVP David Robinson and the Spurs in six games. That means there are adults of drinking age who weren't alive the last time these two
2. This also means that Tim Duncan, the retired Spurs future Hall of Fame big man who came into the league in 1997, never faced the Rockets in the postseason. Perhaps more remarkably, Duncan not only faced every other Western Conference team during that timeframe — yes, even current scrubs like Sacramento and Minnesota, both of whom were not always scrubby — but he has BEATEN every other Western Conference team in a playoff series during his career. Yes, even the Seattle Supersonics!
3. All of that said, the Rockets are undefeated — 3-0, baby! — in the postseason against the Spurs.
And that's where the Rockets, somewhat incredibly, picked up on Monday night, right where they left off in 1995, slapping the Spurs around like rag dolls. I think it's fairly safe to say that this is not how the whole series will go, but on Monday, the Rockets showed just what an unstoppable force they are when they are a) kicking down shots and b) staying active on defense.
126-99, Rockets in Game 1. I mean...wow. Finding winners and losers that aren't completely obvious in a game like Monday's is tricky, but we will do our best...
Sometimes a huge early lead in an NBA game, especially for a road team, can be a bit of a curse. If you are said road team, you use a ton of adrenaline to jump WAY up, and then the home team makes a run and the crowd starts to believe and, all of a sudden, the lead is gone. We see this happen all the time. The Rockets spent a majority of the first quarter up by double digits, but when Kawhi Leonard hit a three to cut the lead to 28-21, it felt a little like the Thunder-Rockets series, where the Thunder played their "A" game for big chunks of the series and would look up at the scoreboard and only be leading by four or six or whatever. Credit the Rockets, though — they responded with a 6-0 run and the lead never got under 10 the rest of the night. When they took their first 20-plus-point lead of the night at 47-25, the lead never went under 20. This was a wire-to-wire ass-kicking.
3. Clint Capela
After looking somewhat overwhelmed and, at times, docile in the Thunder series, Regular Season Clint Capela showed up for the party on Monday night, scoring 20 points — most of them on ferocious dunks and finishes — and gathering 13 rebounds. More important, his contesting of shots when the game was still in reach for the Spurs was an element that we didn't see in the first round from him. If the Rockets are winning the paint battle game to game in this series, this won't take long.
2. Three-point shooting invincibility
Coming into this series, the Rockets were the worst three-point shooting team in the postseason (28.4 percent), which is a big problem when you're a team that likes to launch threes at record-setting rates. In particular, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson struggled in round one of the playoffs, going a combined 6 for 40 from distance. However, the team, including Ariza and Anderson (9-20, combined), shot 22 of 50 from downtown and buried the Spurs in a 30-point deficit by halftime under an avalanche of three-point shots, 12 of them to be exact.
1. Houston sports fans
So on the same night, amid the afterglow of the Deshaun Watson trade last Thursday, we get a 27-point win over the Spurs and a 6-2 win over the Rangers that featured a near bench-clearing brawl. Not a bad time to be a Houston sports fan!
4. LaMarcus Aldridge
The acquisition of Aldridge was supposed to be the salvo that reclaimed the West for the Spurs, and while they've been good to great in the regular season in his two years so far, the postseason has been uneven, to say the least. Last season, they lost to the Thunder in the conference semifinals, and now they cede home court in this series with Aldridge putting up a line of 2-7 for four points and an astounding -36 plus/minus rating... and make no mistake, his game looked every bit as soft as it appeared in the box score. The spotlight is now squarely on Aldridge in this series.
3. Age discrimination
When Aldridge isn't playing well, this Spurs team is propped up almost singlehandedly by the greatness of the 25-year-old Leonard. I say that because when HE isn't playing well (and like every other Spur on Monday, he didn't), it's left up to a supporting cast that may as well be using NBA-labeled walkers and wheelchairs. After Leonard and Aldridge (who, at 31, is spry compared to his supporting cast), the next wave of players in the rotation include starters David Lee (34 years old) and Tony Parker (34), and the first two guys off the bench, Pau Gasol (36) and Manu Ginobili (87...just kidding, but still, 39 years old). I don't want to overreact in the wake of one bad game, but does Gregg Popovich have a tougher task coming up these next few seasons than we think?
2. Sam Dekker
I'll be honest, until I saw him get in for some garbage time points in the fourth quarter, I had no idea that Sam Dekker was fully recovered from the broken bone in his hand. I only put him here under "Losers" because a) it's just too obvious to keep listing Spurs, and b) if he hadn't gotten hurt toward the end of the regular season and been in street clothes the first round of the playoffs, it's fair to wonder if he might have seized some minutes amid Anderson's and Ariza's shooting slumps.
1. Roger Goodell
Nothing to do with Spurs-Rockets — I mean, what else is left to say? — so I will use this space to remind everyone that Roger Goodell is a bad booger wiper of a human being...
Shout it from the rooftops, people!
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.
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