Rockets-Spurs: Houston wins the matchups, and the game, it wasn’t supposed to

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SAN ANTONIO — The are not going to play much worse in their second-round series vs. Houston than they did in their 126-99 loss to the . It’s also doubtful that the Rockets will play much better than they did for the rest of this series. The calls after the game from both teams was “It’s one game,” as Gregg Popovich summed up the game as only he does, with “We lost, and they won, and they played better.” 

But for the Spurs, the concern comes not from the 27-point margin of victory for Houston, or the 39-point biggest lead, or the transition points differential (27-9 through three quarters). The concern comes from the fact that the Rockets not only won in the edges you would expect them to, but that they dominated so many matchups which should have gone their way. To wit:

  • is slow of foot and small in stature compared to most bigs. He should be the player that is exploited, and instead, the Spurs had a 64.3 points per 100 possessions mark with Anderson on the floor through the first 30 minutes. For comparison, the Rockets scored 122.3 points — nearly double that — with Anderson on the floor. Anderson was a better defensive player than in Game 1, digging for two steals and adding two deflections. He added five rebounds, one fewer than Aldridge.
  • If the Spurs are going to play two bigs as they did for most of the game, they have to punish Clint Capela inside, or the guards who wind up on switches. Instead, Aldridge shot 2-of-7 from the field and was completely lost, as Capela flummoxed him and the Rockets helped without being punished for it as Aldridge dropped the ball. 
  • was 5-of-14, a minus-16, and was the best defensive player on the floor. That’s disastrous. 
  • had 14 points and nine assists with Kawhi Leonard and on the floor, a plus-9 in 18 minutes. He had thee turnovers, but dominated in those minutes on a night where he didn’t even have to be great. He was 3-of-6 from 3-point range. 
  • The Rockets outscored the Spurs by 23.6 points per 100 possessions when Harden was on the bench.

All of these areas where the Spurs should have had an advantage got flipped upside down, and all the areas they were going to lose, they lost, too. The Rockets hit 15 3-pointers in three quarters. The Spurs hit nine for the game, total. The Spurs’ big men were run off the floor, and Popovich still stuck with two-big lineups consistently. 

“Well, we played big all year long against Houston,” Popovich said. But if you’re going to miss shots, or take quick shots, ill-advised or contested shots, quickly in the shot clock, if you’re making them all it’s no problem. But when you get back in transition with the two bigs that’s a problem.” 

Maybe more alarming than anything for the Spurs was their lack of composure, which is as much a bedrock of their foundation as Leonard or Tim Duncan was. became the first Spur to be ejected since Robert Horry in 2007 (vs. D’Antoni’s , of course). became involved in a ruckus that led to his ejection, a ruckus that the Spurs were involved in. Kawhi Leonard outright shoved in the back after the two became tangled up in the third quarter. It wasn’t a “create separation” shove. It was a frustration shove, a rare moment of human emotion from the man so often compared to a cyborg. 

The Spurs have the veteran leadership to settle and move past it, to stay coiled, but those same veterans put up no fight vs. the Rockets’ assault, either. So they have to find a balance between the emotion the younger Spurs showed, and the composure that’s needed from the vets. 

More than anything, though, they have to hit shots. The Spurs entered this series as the defensive juggernaut, the Rockets the team talked about as an offense-only squad, even if that was overblown. San Antonio shot 37 percent, and those misses opened up transition shot after transition shot, which Popovich attributed the 3-point volume to.

It’s easy to look at Game 1 and say “just a bad game,” and it certainly was. But San Antonio has to regain the higher ground in the matchups its favored in, because Houston is too good to trade matchups with. The Spurs will play better in Game 2. 

Because it’s impossible for them to play worse. 

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