In the NBA playoffs, there are two types of elimination games. There are the ACTUAL elimination games, games in which one team or both sit at three wins in a series and a victory in game seven would end the season of their opponent.
Then, there are DE FACTO elimination games, games whose result doesn't actually eliminate either team, but whose outcome can put one team on life support, nestled snugly behind the 8-ball. On Sunday, the Rockets were able to stave off a de facto elimination by defeating the Spurs 125-104 in game four of their best-of-seven series, evening the series at two games apiece.
Make no mistake, if the Rockets had lost Sunday night, the series was over. Maybe not mathematically, but psychologically. Coming back from down 3-1 to the Clippers and having home court advantage is doable. Coming back from down 3-1 against the Spurs with two more games in San Antonio (even a debilitated, Parker-less edition of the Spurs) was not happening.
Thankfully, it doesn't need to. Some winners and losers now...
4. Patrick Beverley's compartmentalization skills
Just a few hours before tipoff last night, Patrick Beverley found out that his grandfather had passed away. Reportedly, Beverley was completely distraught, tears and everything (not unlike Boston's Isaiah Thomas after hearing the news about his sister dying in a car accident a few weeks ago). It's obvious from this postgame press conference, Beverley was close with his grandfather...
Rockets' Patrick Beverley fights back tears as he remembers his grandfather: "He wore my jerseys every single day." pic.twitter.com/UFGUN8j7r9— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 8, 2017
Even with a heavy heart and completely abnormal emotional circumstances, Beverley was able to go out and give the Rockets a "normal" Pat Beverley game — 10 points, 6 assists, a few offensive rebounds, great defense. Thoughts and prayers to Patrick Beverley.
3. Rockets' bench
Unlike the previous game, where the performance from James Harden's supporting cast went like this....
HOU comb. FG%:— Sean Pendergast (@SeanTPendergast) May 6, 2017
* Trev, EG, Bev, Lou, Nene, Ando: 23.5%
* EG, Bev, Lou, Nene, Ando: 16.7%
* Lou, Nene, Ando: 0.0%https://t.co/BzRUwfeM9m
...on Sunday night, things went considerably better for the Rockets bench. Eric Gordon played like an All-Star, scoring 22 points, including 6-9 from three-point range, and Lou Williams is quickly becoming a "barometer player" (meaning "as he goes, they go") for this team, as he scored a very deceptive 13 points. It felt like more than that, mostly because they all seemed to come at crucial junctures of the game. The only negative from the reserves was Nene's injury, which we will get to shortly.
2. Jonathan Simmons
If you're looking for reasons to hate the Spurs, look no further than Jonathan Simmons, and not necessarily Simmons specifically (he seems like a swell fella), but what Simmons represents — yet another ignored, discarded and/or underrated pickup that any team in the league probably could have had, but instead he is now a valued contributor off the bench for the San Antonio Freaking Spurs. Last night, he carried the Spurs for a short stint when the game was still within reach, the same way he hit massive buckets in game three to hold the Rockets at bay. He finished with 17 points in 23 minutes. The fact that he went to the University of Houston is extra salt in the wound.
1. James Harden
I feel like I'm the only person in Houston who just can't let the MVP race go. Russell Westbrook is going to win it, and it's such a travesty, because it's games like last night where you sense just how valuable Harden's stye when he is at his best (and he was at his best for like 95 percent of the regular season). He had 28 points on just 18 shots, and it's not just that he had 12 assists, but it's the quality of the shots that come from his assists. To wit...
Rockets shot 12-of16 off of James Harden passes including 8-of-11 on 3s— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 8, 2017
In short, there is very little heavy lifting to do when you play offensively with Harden. Make your shots, that's it.
4. Kawhi Leonard
This was an odd game for Leonard. First, there is no debate as to the magnitude of what the Spurs could have accomplished last night. As outlined earlier, they could have de facto sewn up the series. Yet Leonard seemed oddly passive throughout the evening for a first-team All-NBAer, shooting the ball only 14 times and getting to the line just three times. In fact, this was a theme for the Spurs frontcourt throughout the game...
3. Spurs frontcourt shot selection
...as LaMarcus Aldridge only took 13 shots, and a lot of them (too many of them) were midrange, somewhat contested jumpers AFTER the Rockets lost Nene and were forced to go small. The Spurs were settling for shots that the Rockets had to be thrilled about. For all the matchup benefits they were dealt last night, the Spurs leveraged their advantages very, very poorly. If you're going to take two-point shots, go inside and get buckets and draw fouls. They played right into the Rockets' collective hands...
God forbid the Toronto Raptors ever become anything more than a hollow, playoff poser every postseason....
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This one hurts. Nene left the game after just a minute and 43 seconds with a pull of his left groin. He did not return, and it remains to be seen just how serious the injury is, although if you're drafting soft tissue injuries, "groin pull" might be the Mr. Irrelevant (i.e., last one chosen) of that particular draft. It cannot be understated how important Nene has been and is for this team. Sure, in Game 4, the Rockets may have gone small anyway just to change things up and that would have eaten into Nene's minutes, but not having him available at all is a gigantic issue. D'Antoni and the Rockets will have to make do, however. Nene is their only real traditional scoring threat inside the paint. Clint Capela is still raw and a little awkward, and everyone else gets their buckets playing off of Harden on the perimeter. It will be interesting to see if Mike D'Antoni now slides Montrezl Harrell in for some minutes. He has been glued to the bench this series.
Game five tips off at 7 p.m. Tuesday night in San Antonio.
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.