For all of its pinball machine scoring for the Rockets and all of the bluster it created among Rocket fans and media, Game 1 of this Western Conference semifinals series sure does seem like it happened a lot longer than five days ago.
In one horrific bricklaying session of an evening, the Rockets undid what they accomplished in San Antonio, ceding home court advantage back to the Spurs in an ugly 103-92 loss in front of a sporadically energetic crowd at Toyota Center on Friday night. Perhaps more importantly, though, they not only allowed San Antonio to believe they can win without point guard Tony Parker, but they failed to come up with any sort of tactical response to the Spurs' Game 2 and Game 3 strategy of allowing James Harden to bomb away and keeping their defenders attached to the Rockets' perimeter players.
It'd be one thing if the Rockets' 30.8 percent conversion rate from downtown was just the product of a random bad night of missing open shots, but it went beyond that. Sure, there were open shots that were missed from three point range — they missed 27 of them, so there were misses of ALL types — but many of the clanks were contested by Spur defenders who were spry in navigating the Rockets' high screens and disciplined in staying with end points on Harden's lasers back out to Rocket shooters.
This was not one of those games where you can just say "Well, next time they'll make those shots." I mean, maybe they will, but the Spurs have removed a ton of the randomness from the Rockets' subpar offense these last two games. One game below 100 points may be random. Two games? No sir. The last time the Rockets scored under 100 in consecutive games J.B. Bickerstaff was the head coach.
For the Spurs, no Parker? No problem. At least for now. Quickly, some winners and losers and then on with the weekend...
4. Kawhi Leonard
After perhaps the most efficient game we've seen played against the Rockets all season (13 of 16 from the field) in Game 2, Leonard followed up that performance with another virtuoso game on Friday night, scoring 26 points and gathering 10 rebounds. More importantly, he took over some of the ball handling duties vacated by Parker's injury, and according to ESPN, the Spurs scored 1.38 points per possession when Leonard brought the ball up the floor, versus 0.80 points per possession when anyone else did. Add in the way they use him defensively, and Leonard is going to be asked to be a poor man's LeBron for the remainder of this postseason. Should be fun to watch.
3. Pau Gasol
One key change that Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich made from Game 1 to Game 2 was the removal of David Lee's corpse from the starting lineup and the insertion of Pau Gasol at center. Gasol, whose calling card his entire career has been his offensive skills with the ball in his hands (post play, outside shooting, passing), has been a monster on the boards in these two Spurs wins (11.0 per game) and has actually provided decent rim protection inside. He's been a huge key for the Spurs.
2. Jonathan Simmons
Simmons had only had seven points on the night, but he hit perhaps the biggest shot of the game to close out the third quarter...
The Rockets had cut the Spurs lead to three with just five seconds to go in the quarter, but that play by Simmons took the lead back up to six, and in a relatively defensive game like Friday's was, that was a gigantic psychological haymaker.
1. LaMarcus Aldridge
I said on my radio show on Friday that, with Tony Parker out, the Spurs would go as LaMarcus Aldridge goes. My assumption in that hypothesis was that Kawhi Leonard is likely going to be great in all of these games. He can be cancelled out by James Harden (and largely was on Friday). However, Aldridge CLEARLY has the opportunity to establish himself as the obvious third best player in this series. He definitely has the highest ceiling of any player not named Leonard or Harden. On Friday, Aldridge had 26 points on 12-20 shooting. The Spurs won by 11. The end.
4. Patrick Beverley, Eric Gordon....
I hate putting Beverley in here, because he does bring defensive intensity and effort on the glass that no other backcourt player on either team comes close to replicating. However, we can't ignore the elephant in the room — the Rockets couldn't shoot the basketball on Friday. Beverley and Gordon went a combined 6 for 23 from the field. Still, at least Beverley and Gordon made a few baskets.....
3. ...Lou Williams, Nene, Ryan Anderson
..... these three were a combined 0-13 from the field. Absolutely, positively wretched. So, if you're keeping track at home — and let's toss Ariza's 6-15 night in there — players not named Harden or Capela shot a combined 12 for 51 from the field on Friday.
2. Rockets transition game
Another reason the Rockets' field goal percentage was so low was that they got almost zero easy baskets. The Spurs' transition defense was on point all night, and held the Rockets to just seven fast break points, as compared to 13 points in Game 2 and a whopping 28 points in Game 1. Credit the Spurs, who managed to do this while turning the ball over themselves 20 times.
1. Mike D'Antoni
D'Antoni's free flowing system, with Harden picking and choosing from an array of wide open shooters, was in fifth gear all game in Game 1. Since then, Popovich has been schooling D'Antoni in the chess game of a seven game series, with lineup tweaks in Game 2 and then massive adjustments sans Parker in Game 3. Your turn, D'Antoni. It will be interesting to see if the Houston rotation remains the same eight guys with the same substitution pattern, or if D'Antoni will try a smaller lineup (Ryan Anderson at the five has been suggested by some, intriguing) or perhaps give Sam Dekker some minutes to see if he can bring a boost if some of the shooting doesn't pick up.
This guy will see you all on Sunday, 8 p.m. tip time.
I'm so jealous of this kid. He'll have this for the rest of his life. Nailed his moment. pic.twitter.com/T1Jnj2t9JL— Ross Bolen (@WRBolen) May 6, 2017
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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