2017 Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio 110, Houston 107 (OT)
Spurs lead series 3-2
With their lead guard down and their superstar out, the Spurs had an unlikely foursome step up to seize control of the game and the series in Game 5.
After Kawhi hobbled off the court late, the Rockets had a prime opportunity to steal this game on the road and likely close out the series in Game 6. Instead, the Spurs four wing players combined to carry the burden and bring the Spurs across the finish line.
Let’s start with Patty, who got his first start of the postseason and didn’t disappoint. He was hot early, keeping the Spurs even with the Rockets through the frenetic first half. When the game slowed down late, he continued to grind on defense and kept moving on offense to keep things from getting too bogged down. Asked to play more minutes than he is used to, he stepped up in a huge way. (Looking forward, Patty would actually be a great starting PG next to Kawhi, with enough ball handling to keep defenses honest and the shooting to keep them spread out. But that’s a conversation for the summer.)
Next up is Danny Green, old reliable. He played his usual stout defense, but really stepped up on offense when the team needed it most. He was 4-for-8 from 3, and hit two huge ones: the first to end the 3rd quarter and give the Spurs a one-point lead; the second the shot that got the lid off the basket in OT for the Spurs. He followed that shot up with a driving and-1 layup, perhaps his first successful foray to the rim as a professional basketball player. He then hit the final free throw to give the Spurs their 3-point margin of victory. He scored the final 7 points for the Spurs, as unlikely a scoring hero as you’ll find on the roster.
Then we have Simmons, who is proving in this series what we’ve all hoped was true about him. He is designed to play against these Rockets, with his speed and athleticism a necessary counter to Houston. He has just enough ball-handling abilities to serve as a playmaker in the Spurs PG-light rotations, and drives well enough to make up for his outside shooting. His slashes to the basket all game were necessary. Perhaps most impressively, he guarded Harden as well as anybody can, particularly late in the game. Harden turned the ball over 4 times with Simmons as the primary defender in the heart of crunch time. His poise in the biggest of moments has been mightily impressive.
Which brings us, finally, to Manu Ginobili. Manu freaking Ginobili. There’s a reason Spurs fans irrationally love him, and will forgive him all his foibles and bad games. He has risen to clutch situation after clutch situation his whole life, and he does it with flair and grace. He scored. He dunked. He assisted. He ran the team like it was the 2005 Finals.
And to cap it all off, that block. That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen on a basketball court. Manu’s greatest athletic gift might be his reflexes and complete control of his hands. He just seems to operate a split second ahead of the rest of us. As many have pointed out, he was jumping to block Harden’s shot before Harden was shooting. And he just knew where to put his hands, and when to put them there. There are plenty of ways to win a basketball game, but not too many people will go with “block a potential game-tying 3-pointer from behind”. Only Manu.
These four wings stepped up huge. While the bigs seemed to play poorly throughout the game, let’s not discount their contributions. They battled hard on the boards, and the Spurs ended up with 18 offensive boards (9 by LaMarcus). While they all didn’t contribute to points, they did contribute to slow the game down and gum up Houston’s offense a bit.
And while neither LaMarcus nor Gasol shot very well (often being guarded against much smaller players), there is still benefit to hammering it down in the post. For one, it slows the game down, as mentioned. For another, even if they’re not scoring, pounding into Harden in the post possession after possession is tiresome. As much as the pace of the game, the pounding Harden took in that first half guarding the post must have worn him down.
A few more things stand out about this game. A lot is being made that D’Antoni only played a 7-man rotation. This has been his modus operandi for years. He plays who he can trust. I don’t know if playing only those seven players tired them out late in the game, but it was obvious they were struggling.
The Spurs played 9 players, basically a 7-man rotation with Lee getting 11 minutes and Anderson getting 7. You can argue that neither should be playing in this series as they can’t match up well with Houston, and I’d see your point. But I’d argue that each had their moments, and that those 20 minutes are critically important. The Spurs might not win the minutes those two are on the floor, but the rest they provide for other players might be the difference to the Spurs winning the last 5 minutes. In other words, perhaps Ginobili and Simmons and Mills and Green and Aldridge were just a little sprier in those last few minutes than their Rockets counterparts precisely because Lee and Anderson ate up those 20 minutes earlier in the game.
Finally, we all know the Rockets want to play fast. The narrative is that the Spurs need to slow them down to win the game. And this is true. But something occurred to me watching this game: maybe the best way to slow the Rockets down is to just wear them out running over 3 quarters and then muck it up in the 4th. Of course, in order to do this, you have to keep pace for three quarters. But if you can do that, you have a chance to win (especially if you are a deeper team).
I’m not saying this was Pop’s strategy. But for 3 quarters, the Spurs took every blow from the Rockets’ offense and responded in kind. After three, the score was 86-85, on pace for a game right around 115 points for each team. Instead, regulation ended knotted up at 101, as each team only managed 15 and 16 points in the final quarter.
OT was even sloggier, as neither team scored for about 2 1/2 minutes, and the Rockets only points came off of two 3-pointers.
Both teams were noticeably gassed in the final 17 minutes. Offenses slowed to a grind, and there just wasn’t any movement, particularly from the Rockets. It took 3 quarters of playing the Rockets way, but the game finally turned the Spurs way. And it did so precisely because it had been played at the Rockets’ pace for 36 minutes.
Wait long enough and the worm will turn; pound enough, and that rock will break. Have a Manu Ginobili, and you’ll likely win Game 5.
Now the Spurs head back to Houston with a chance to close out in Game 6. We don’t know how badly Kawhi is hurt. He says he’ll play, but I imagine it won’t be his final decision. Should Pop sit him out in Game 6 (knowing the team isn’t favored any way) and give him four full days of rest before a potential Game 7 on Sunday? Or should he play him (assuming he’s healthy enough), knowing that he risks further injury and potential catastrophe?
My thought is you play him if he’s healthy enough to go, even if not 100%. You can’t give away chances to close out a series. The Spurs have shown they can close these things out on the road, and I’d rather take two cracks at it than one.
Either way, I hope Kawhi isn’t seriously hurt. He didn’t look good for most of the game, though he did play valiantly after returning from the injury. I think to win this series, the Spurs need one more ultra-Kawhi game.
Game 6 is Thursday night.
Go Spurs Go.