If you're a Houston Rockets fan and you're reading this on Thursday morning, with the wounds of a 121-96 thumping at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs still fresh, what I am about to say may not resonate with you, but the business trip west to San Antonio was a success.
The Rockets win in Game 1 of the series served two purposes — it seized home court advantage in the series, and, given the fashion in which they won, it showed the Rockets there are plenty of clubs in their bag to get them to four wins first. On Wednesday night, the clubs didn't cooperate. Game 2, while close for nearly three quarters, felt like a balloon that was about to explode all night long.
The Spurs FELT like the much better team while holding tight, single-digit leads throughout the first three quarters. They removed all doubt as soon as the fourth quarter started and James Harden went to the bench. Ultimately, the Spurs shot more than 50 percent in each quarter, and outscored the Rockets 33-13 in the final stanza to close things out.
With the series even at 1-1, the bigger question for the Spurs becomes how they (likely) handle life without Tony Parker, who went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the fourth quarter. More on all that in a moment. Let's hit some winners and losers...
4. Ryan Anderson
If there was a silver lining on Wednesday for Rockets fans, and trust me, you have to stare hard to find any, it's that Anderson had his second straight stellar shooting night, going 7-9 from the field, including 4-5 from three-point range. Now he needs to carry it over at home, which has been an issue all year for Anderson. His home/road splits — 33 percent three-point shooting at home, and 47 percent on the road. It's odd.
3. Pau Gasol
After the Game 1 wipeout at the hands of the Rockets, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich tweaked his starting lineup, removing David Lee (who caught the wrath of Pop badly in Game 1 after going matador on defense when switched onto James Harden) and inserting Pau Gasol. Gasol didn't give the Spurs much scoring, but was their leading rebounder (13) and was more active in the paint than Lee, which admittedly is not difficult to do.
2. Marwin Gonzalez
You know what? It was a goddamn 25-point loss to the Spurs, and I know Marwin Gonzalez plays for the Astros, but it's my column and I can do what I want. Hey, Houston, guess who hit ANOTHER home run on Wednesday night? Yeah, you guessed it — MARWIN JAVIER GONZALEZ. The Astros moved to 3-0 on the season against the Rangers, and Marwin leads the team in home runs (8), RBI (19), OPS (1.024) and positions played (all of them, it feels like). God bless Marwin, you can't keep the guy off the field!
1. Kawhi Leonard
Leonard was the best player on the floor Wednesday night, and it wasn't even close. He about pitched a perfect game offensively, peppering the Rockets with midrange jumpers, leaners and floaters in going 13-16 from the field and scoring 34 points. He added a career-high eight assists and turned the ball over just twice all game. Leonard also spent much larger portions of the game matched up on Harden, which certainly contributed mightily to Harden's scoring only 13 points.
4. The early fourth quarter second unit
As mentioned earlier, this game always felt like a dam that was about to break. In some sense, given the predictable emotional letdown that comes after a win like theirs in game 1, I kind of admire how the Rockets were able to hang in for three quarters playing their "C" game. That said, when a game feels like it could unravel at any time, you can sense the signs of it when it's about to happen. It was pretty easy to sniff out the sequence — with Harden on the bench to open the fourth quarter and the Rockets trailing 88-83, the Spurs got an uncontested outback from Manu Ginobili, a clank from 26 feet on a pull-up jumper by Eric Gordon, and then an "and one" at the other end by the Spurs' Jonathan Simmons. All of a sudden, a five-point deficit was ten, and a minute later it was 97-83. That was the set-up punch, and the knockout blow came in a 19-0 run over four minutes from the 7:05 to the 3:14 mark. These runs were big contributors to Eric Gordon's (-26), Lou Williams's (-11) and Beverley's (-23) chilling plus/minus numbers.
3. Tony Parker
While it no doubt helps the Rockets, it was a shame to see Parker go down in the fourth quarter, as he was having a pretty solid game up to that point (18 points, 4 assists). Given the advanced stage that Parker is in in his career, the drop-off from him to Patty Mills is negligible talent-wise, but obviously the Spurs lose a ton in leadership and depth.
2. Our ears listening to Reggie Miller
Why do you do this to us, TNT? Seriously, what the hell did we ever do to you? The worst part about having to suffer Miller all night is that I LOVE Kevin Harlan, but having to endure Miller alongside Harlan is like getting served a gigantic rib eye covered in Drano. To wit...
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Reggie Miller: “ Good use of the 24 second clock by the Rockets.”— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) May 4, 2017
Hey dipshit, they’re not TRYING to milk the clock, they’re down by 14.
1. James Harden
On my radio show Wednesday afternoon, my cohosts and I were trying to put ourselves in the Spurs' shoes and pick the proper poison to slow down the Rockets' offensive attack. I chose having the Spurs' defenders run underneath the screens on the pick and roll and dare Harden to beat them from deep. Offensively, three-point shooting is the one thing Harden does at a mere B or B+ level, as opposed to virtually everything else, which he does at an A or A+. It turned out to be the right strategy, as Harden shot 3-17 from the field, and just 2-9 from deep. The bigger story might be whatever secrets are being kept about Harden's health, because he didn't look completely right on Wednesday night. One hopes it was just a down night and he comes out energized at home on Friday.
Tip time Friday for Game 3 is 8:30 p.m. at Toyota Center.
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.