2017 Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio 104, Houston 125
Series tied 2-2
When the Rockets are cooking, they look near unbeatable.
The Rockets want to play fast, and they want to shoot a lot of threes. In Games 2 and 3, when the Spurs won, they were able to slow the Rockets down, and limit the long range shots.
Some of that shotmaking is just luck of the draw. On any given night, they might make 50% of their threes, no matter how well you guard. On those nights you’re not winning.
Game 4 was one of those nights. While the Spurs kept it close in the first half, it always seemed like they were one good run away from losing control of the game. The third quarter was that run.
While the shooting is largely out of their control, the pace is not. The Rockets made a concerted effort to get out in transition, and the Spurs took the bait. Same as Game 1. You have to remain disciplined in your pace against this team, and the Spurs were unable to do so.
Of course, it helps for the Spurs to make shots. As we’ve discussed, sometimes the best defense against Houston is a good offense. As we know, these Spurs are prone to shooting droughts. Miss enough shots, and the Rockets will romp all over you.
Houston may have also inadvertently stumbled into another edge. With Nene going down with a groin injury (Editor’s note: Left Adductor Tear) and Clint Capela saddled with foul trouble, Houston went super small with Ryan Anderson at center. While no defensive juggernaut, the Spurs had no way of stopping this lineup, and it effectively ruined their best defensive counter to keep the big man clogging the lane. With Anderson playing Center and never venturing into the paint, the Spurs had to concede the lane or concede a wide open 3. There is no in between.
The Spurs can remain stubborn and stay big with one of the traditional Houston centers playing, but not when they go this small. The evidence was there in the third quarter: Houston started Eric Gordon instead of Anderson, going smaller against the Pau Gasol-LaMarcus Aldridge lineup. Eventually Anderson came in for Capela, with Houston remaining ultra-small. In both iterations, the Rockets just feasted on the slow and lumbering Spurs.
Staying big has advantages, none of which the Spurs could fully exploit. They got Gasol and Aldridge isolated in the post several times against smaller players. But the payoff wasn’t enough to keep up with the Rockets’ threes. The Spurs also couldn’t make the small Rockets pay on the glass, as they were ineffective collecting offensive rebounds and getting second chance points (another way to really slow the game down and muck it up, like in Game 3).
Moving into Game 5, the Spurs have tough decisions to make. Nene is out for the remainder of the season, so it’s going to be Capela and Anderson as the only centers, and likely rarely together. All small, all the time. Will the Spurs attempt to counter? Will they try to win going big, like in Games 2 and 3, even though the Rockets have gotten much smaller (and much harder to guard)? Will they try to go small, with Kawhi Leonard at the 4 and only one traditional big at a time (likely Gasol or Aldridge, both of whom will have a size advantage in those small lineups)?
This is what makes this series so fascinating. It is two really great teams playing really different styles. Right now, it looks like the team who ‘gets their way’ more often will win the series. But there’s another way: the team who can beat the other at their style can also win the series. We know the Rockets can’t match the Spurs in size (they literally don’t have the personnel for it); can the Spurs match the Rockets in speed and “smallness”?
More pertinently: is Pop willing to try?
This series may be won or lost on Pop’s willingness to be flexible or his obstinate rigidity in sticking to his system. The answer will only be given in hindsight.
Or it might just come down to whether the Rockets can hit a bunch of threes in two more games. Sure makes you feel helpless.
Game 5 is Tuesday night in San Antonio.
Go Spurs Go.