The ever-steady San Antonio Spurs were supposed to present a stiff challenge to the Rockets. Instead, they got cooked, broken down, and eaten by a ravenous Rockets team without putting up a fight.
Houston won going away, 126-99. The 27-point loss marks San Antonio’s largest home playoff defeat of all time. As gaudy as that margin is, it really sells short just how thoroughly Houston stuffed San Antonio into the garbage can. The Rockets jumped out to a big lead immediately, led by 30 at halftime, and held the Spurs to just four measly points in the eight minutes on either side of the halfway point. Every Rockets player finished with a positive plus-minus aside from the garbage time unit, and the team combined for a franchise playoff record 22 threes. The only Spurs player besides Kawhi Leonard in double digits was Jonathon Simmons, and he scored all 11 of his points in the fourth quarter after both benches had cleared.
One of the supposed strengths of the Spurs is their corps of big guys, but starting duo David Lee and LaMarcus Aldridge got worked tonight by Clint Capela. Pau Gasol could do little to stop the Rockets’ offensive onslaught during his 25 minutes. The Spurs will have to go smaller than they’re used to to play with the Rockets. While this does not mean they’ll roll out some ersatz lineup with Manu Ginobili at center, the Rockets are uniquely set up to punish anyone who comes at them with two traditional big guys. It does not help that all of the Spurs’ big guys can neither protect the rim nor keep up with perimeter players.
James Harden looked every bit as good tonight as he did in the Thunder series, although he didn’t really have to shoot much. Harden played more like a traditional point guard, dishing out 14 assists to the Rockets’ shooters. Harden, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley all made multiple three-pointers tonight. The Spurs may have had the most efficient defense in the league this past regular season, but Houston cut through them without resistance. Harden is incredible at reading pick-and-roll coverages, and he seemed to find the roll man every time.
For some reason, the Spurs didn’t throw Leonard at Harden much at all. A good deal of Kawhi Leonard’s MVP case rests on his vise-like perimeter defense, a virtue which is irrelevant if you tell him to lurk off the ball and keep Trevor Ariza quiet while Harden gets whatever switch he wants after running Danny Green through oodles of stout Nene screens. Perhaps Gregg Popovich wanted to emphasize cutting off Houston’s shooters at the expense of free reign for Harden. If that was the plan, it failed spectacularly because Houston got 50 threes off and hit 44 percent of them. As Zach Lowe noted earlier today, Houston didn’t shoot that well against San Antonio in the regular season. if Leonard is simply forced to react, that’s a waste of his talents.
Even when San Antonio hinted at making a run, they would inevitably lose momentum to a timely Rockets three. San Antonio has lost games like this before, but those losses rarely came in the playoffs and they rarely featured the team losing its collective composure. Simmons got into it with Ariza on the perimeter in the third, Dewayne Dedmon went chest-to-chest with Harden at the end of the quarter, and then Dedmon was later ejected for jawing at Beverly. The Spurs have been immune to these sorts of meltdowns in the past, and Dedmon became the first Spurs player to get ejected from a playoff game since Robert Horry in 2007.
Gregg Popovich was brutally honest in his postgame address to the media:
For once, Pop said more than he needed to. “We lost. And they won and they played better,” just about says it all.