Some NBA playoff series feature evenly matched teams that play tight, hotly contested games that come down to the final minutes. Others are close in the sense that each side has a good chance to advance in the best-of-seven. After four games all decided by double-digit margins, the Western Conference Semifinals between the No. 2 San Antonio Spurs and No. 3 Houston Rockets mostly assuredly qualifies in the latter category.
The Rockets’ 125-104 win in Sunday night’s Game 4 was the latest in this series’ convincing victories. After two losses that reversed the impact of what seemed like a momentous Game 1 victory, Houston pushed the pace early and made 19 three-pointers to tie the series up at 2-2. The convincing result served as more evidence for what has become the prevailing argument about this series — whichever team wins the key matchups in each game will be very tough to beat.
Houston opened Game 4 with a clear effort to reverse much of what went wrong in Games 2 and 3. For the most part, that quality manifested itself in transition, where the smaller and speedier Rockets attempted to push the pace and score before the Spurs’ elite defense could set itself. The fastbreak points from the period tell the story — the Rockets scored as many as in all of Game 2 and four more than they did in Game 3:
Rockets fast break points:
Game 1: 27
Game 2: 13
Game 3: 9
Game 4 first quarter: 13
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) May 8, 2017
The emphasis on pace helped Houston build a 34-22 lead after one, but that advantage did not last long. San Antonio defended far better in the second quarter and more easily controlled pace, which in turn forced the Rockets into more halfcourt possessions at both ends. Houston has the offensive talent to shoot its way out of such scenarios, but such a style clearly benefits the bigger and stronger Spurs. Kawhi Leonard put forth another game-controlling performance with 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting, and his presence allowed five Spurs to contribute six points apiece. This was Leonard at his best — he drew extra defenders with drives, got to damn near any spot he chose, and used his ever-improving skills to finish it all off buckets. Nevertheless, the Rockets entered halftime up 57-53 thanks in large part to their ability to get 18 three-point attempts, of which they made an acceptable but not overwhelmingly impressive seven.
The goals of this matchup are clear for Mike D’Antoni’s team — spread the floor, let it fly, and hope the slower and frontcourt-oriented Spurs can’t hang. The difference between the first and second quarters only confirmed as much, and it’s perhaps not surprising that the hosts came out of the locker room with a renewed emphasis on carrying out that plan. The Rockets went nearly three minutes of the third quarter without an official two-point attempt and shot 8-of-13 from beyond the arc in the period. Not coincidentally, they won the third 34-23 (including a 17-4 run), leading by as many as 18 and forcing San Antonio into a comeback it simply cannot muster with its current personnel and approach.
As ever, James Harden made the Rockets go. The MVP candidate followed a poor Game 2 and shot-heavy Game 3 with a balanced performance of 28 points (10-of-18 FG) and 12 assists. He conducted the offense, limited bad decisions, and moved with the confidence of a player in control of it all.
Of course, it helped that his teammates made shots that did not go down in the preceding losses. Six other Rockets scored in double figures, and several of them did not only subsist on open shots. Ryan Anderson made a number of difficult jumpers for his 13 on 5-of-11 shooting, and Eric Gordon offered a consistent threat with 22 points on 8-of-13 from the field and 6-of-9 from beyond the arc. Harden earned attention with his game-high 43 points in Game 3, but this win exhibited the Rockets at their best. Their tactical advantage comes from the sheer number of shooters in their rotation, not just the talents of a transcendent star.
In fact, a few strokes of bad luck might have handed the Rockets a new lineup to frustrate the Spurs. Veteran center Nene left Game 4 in the first half with a groin injury and did not return, and starter Clint Capela hit foul trouble soon after. Those absences forced D’Antoni to play a frontcourt of Anderson and forward Trevor Ariza, which sapped Houston of any interior heft but put five shooters on the court at once. The lineup isn’t a salve for whatever ails the Rockets, but it could return for Tuesday’s Game 5, especially if Nene remains unavailable.
Meanwhile, the Spurs endured the connected problems of a non-dominant Leonard and trying to keep up with the Rockets’ preferred style. Kawhi scored just two points and took only four shots in the second half, numbers that don’t scream “failure” but do point to issues. For all his athletic gifts, Leonard is a player who causes the most problems for defenses at a deliberate pace. A succession of Spurs misses and Rockets makes ruined any chance to enforce that style on the game. Without that control, San Antonio took too many quick shots and relied on too much one-on-one play. It’s a cliche to say that the Spurs need to set the tone, but that’s really the best way for them to win games against the Rockets. They’re going to lose any game in which Houston gets out in transition and settles into a rhythm from behind the arc. The Rockets went 19-of-43 from three-point range on Sunday, and both the make and attempt totals are why they won.
It should be more difficult for the Rockets to play that style at the AT&T Center on Tuesday, but it’s also worth wondering if the Spurs have the personnel and stamina to grind out two more wins in this series. Less proven role players like Jonathan Simmons and Dejounte Murray have already exceeded expectations with Tony Parker out for the playoffs, but can they offer steady production against a team as good as the Rockets? If not, too much responsibility may fall on the shoulders of Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Houston has proven it must rely on a high-variance approach, too, but at least the answer for them is clear — take and make three-pointers in the flow of the offense. The Spurs’ success relies on many more interlocking parts.
Still, we know the terms of engagement for Tuesday’s pivotal Game 5. Whichever side wins will gain a huge advantage in the series, even with two blowout losses on the ledger already.
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