Seven random takeaways from the Spurs Game 6 beatdown of a gross Rockets team that did not show up:
• In the best chess match of the playoffs, Gregg Popovich outcoached Mike D’Antoni, and outfoxed James Harden in a Mensa-level battle of wits.
Houston’s offense didn’t wilt in these playoffs. It didn’t thrive, either. The Rockets scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions combined against the Thunder and Spurs, about 4.5 points lower than their fantastic regular-season mark. Again, that’s not some abysmal collapse against a decent Thunder defense and the Spurs’ league-best outfit.
But Houston is built to score. Their defense is not good enough for them to beat elite teams four times in seven tries without consistently great offense. They did not get that, and it’s worth thinking about why.
San Antonio spent Game 1 feeling out some traditional counters to Harden’s pick-and-roll mastery, including switching bigger guys onto him. They did not work.
By the start of Game 2, Popovich and his staff landed on an answer that lasted. Pau Gasol started over David Lee, a move that seemed strange at first for a slow team that needed more speed and defense.
But as usual, Popovich knew better than the rest us. He slotted Gasol onto Clint Capela, and gave him one job on Harden-Capela pick-and-rolls: stay near the rim and put your long arms high in the air when Harden shoots:
Leonard, who got the Harden assignment more or less full-time after Game 1, chased Harden over picks while Gasol hung back. The three other San Antonio defenders stuck close to Houston shooters. They would concede floaters. They would not concede 3s. They would not foul, even at the rim: just put your arms straight up, jump as high as those old legs allow, and hope Harden misses. Gasol’s superior (to Lee) offensive rebounding, post passing, and outside shooting meant the swap worked on both ends.
It was a less extreme version of how Oklahoma City defended Harden. Both teams dared Houston to beat them with drives and contested shots in the paint. The Spurs are just smarter, better, and more disciplined than the Thunder in avoiding fouls. They knew the Rockets would not accept whatever midrange shots, even open ones, the Spurs gave.
The other two prongs of this strategy: slotting a wing (usually Green) onto Anderson, so the Spurs could switch any Harden-Anderson plays, and having Aldridge chase Trevor Ariza.
The Rockets smartly countered by dragging Aldridge through a ton of Harden-Ariza pick-and-rolls. For the first four-plus games, San Antonio had Aldridge lunge out hard on those plays — an attempt to cut Harden off early, and buy Leonard time to scoot around Ariza’s pick:
Houston eventually wore Aldridge down. Harden turned the corner at full speed, with both Leonard and Aldridge trailing, and zipped into a very difficult 5-on-3 for Gasol to handle as the last line of defense.
While Gasol could control a Harden-Capela pick-and-roll — he was close to Capela from the start, and Harden proceeded more slowly, with a shorter runway — these plays were different. They were emergencies. Gasol needed help, and that help came from Houston’s outside shooters. Houston started getting more of the catch-and-shoot 3s that power their offense.
At the end of the second quarter in Game 5, Popovich adjusted again. Aldridge started dropping away from Ariza to wall off Harden before Harden could rev into high gear. Aldridge made himself into a line of defense in front of Gasol:
Popovich rejiggered things when Lee took Gasol’s spot. Aldridge shifted from Ariza to Capela/Nene. He is taller than Lee, and more of a deterrent around the rim; he would patrol the basket. He would be Gasol while Gasol rested.
Lee replaced Aldridge on Ariza duty. That was not ideal, but Lee isn’t tall or explosive enough to concern Harden at the basket.
As the series extended, Popovich shifted more of Lee’s minutes to Simmons and other wing players in small-ball lineups. Basically: if you were too big and slow to defend in space, without a seven-foot wingspan to bother Harden at the rim, there wasn’t much of a role for you.
It was the right balance. It didn’t shut down the Rockets, but it chipped away enough. Both Oklahoma City and San Antonio sapped some of the verve from Houston’s offense. They nudged the Rockets out of rhythm.
The best measure of that: In the regular season, Houston averaged 26.2 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts per game among their 40 overall triples — a 65 percent catch-and-shoot rate on 3s. In the playoffs, just 18.9 of their 38.5 3-point attempts per game — 49 percent — were of the catch-and-shoot variety.
In other words: The “let Harden drive” strategy coaxed Houston into more tough off-the-bounce 3s, including the lazy step-backs that doomed Houston at the end of Game 5. It didn’t matter much against the Thunder; the Rockets compensated by feasting at the rim, and at the foul line.
The free throws disappeared against San Antonio. Houston never unstuck things by running Harden off picks away from the ball before he got it, or sliding him into the post for those low-on-the-floor pick-and-rolls he used to run with Dwight Howard (and sometimes Capela).
Harden disappeared with the season on the line, and now the Rockets vanish until next fall.
• Every player, even limited ones with giant holes in their games, can play some role on a championship team. But it has to be the right role, in the right dosage, at a salary that makes sense.
I remain skeptical that Ryan Anderson can be heavy-minutes guy, earning heavy-minutes money, on a team that wants to win on the biggest stages. He is so bad defensively (other than against post-ups, where he’s solid) at a position in which it is impossible to hide him. The Spurs were merciless. They hunted Anderson on two-dozen pick-and-rolls every game. When he dropped back to corral Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, and other San Antonio ball-handlers, they dribbled right through Anderson like he wasn’t even there before laying the ball in.
It got so bad, the Rockets briefly tried having Anderson trap Leonard in Game 4 as a desperate last resort. He doesn’t have the foot speed for that.
He offers no rim protection. He can’t stay in front of any wing players, so there is no other place to hide him — though I thought the Rockets might try slotting him on Kyle Anderson, with Sam Dekker taking David Lee, during the horrendous early second quarter run in which San Antonio snatched Game 6.
Anderson was playing center during that stretch. Those lineups looks amazing on offense — and they are — but the Spurs rendered them unplayable on defense. Nene’s injury changed this series. It is not the reason Houston lost, but it swung the odds. A thin team could not afford to lose even a single rotation player.
Anderson is a good player, and a great person. He shot 40 percent from 3 this season, and made huge shots in that pivotal Game 5. He even started cooking a bit from 2-point range, and rooting out smaller guys for offensive rebounds.
But it’s hard to work around his defensive limitations. The Rockets have no choice but to try. They are paying Anderson $20 million per year over the next three seasons.
• It’s fair to criticize D’Antoni for using only seven players in Game 5 with Nene injured. Houston gassed out in a game that was there to take. It’s fitting the Spurs humiliated Houston, in Houston, with Dejounte Murray, Jonathon Simmons, and Anderson getting huge minutes — even if Popovich played them that much only out of necessity.
All three guys played significant minutes in the regular season, even while spending chunks of it outside Popovich’s rotation. Murray started a high-profile game in Cleveland, and played quite well. Last night is why you do that in January and February. Your rotation will not be intact for the full playoffs. You will need guys to step up. It will be helpful if they have already played a bit in the regular season.
That is why D’Antoni’s refusal to play Montrezl Harrell (and, to a lesser extent given his late-season injury, Dekker) in Nene’s absence was so strange. What was the point of the 1,064 minutes Harrell logged in the regular season, if not to use him in a postseason circumstance in which you literally have no other options beyond playing seven guys past their breaking points?
• Murray is going to be good. His feel and craft jump off the screen. The Spurs’ point guard situation is one of the most important short- and long-term questions in the league. Tony Parker‘s status is uncertain. Patty Mills is a free agent, and the Spurs want him back. He is an important part now of their culture. It’s tempting to suggest the Spurs can get by with Mills and Murray as place-holders until they figure out a permanent answer in the starting lineup. San Antonio can clearly win 55-plus games in the regular season that way. I’m beginning to think they could do it starting one of Matt Bonner’s favorite sandwiches on the wing.
But can they compete with Golden State and LeBron with a Mills-Murray-and-maybe-Parker trio? We’ll see in the next round whether Mills and Murray are enough. Leonard’s prime, and Aldridge’s early 30s, are not to be wasted.
• Can we please stop using individual playoff games as referenda on the MVP race? It is exhausting, and dumb. The MVP is an award for performance over the 82-game regular season. It’s interesting to monitor how the candidates fare in more important games, but the voting is closed by then.
I’ve lost track of where playoff MVP hindsight has led us, anyway. Russell Westbrook shot 39 percent, and 26.5 percent from 3, in a short first-round loss. Harden cratered in his team’s most important game. Leonard didn’t even play in that Spurs rout, and a few folks on Twitter asked how Leonard — for whom I voted — could possibly be the MVP if his team can win a closeout game without him.
Umm, did you see San Antonio’s first 11 playoff games? Did any of them suggest Leonard was inessential? We are, like, five days removed from everyone wondering when Aldridge would kindly show up, and whether Leonard had any viable supporting cast at all. Did you see any of these dudes play from November through April?
By this logic, we should toss out all the ballots and give the award to LeBron. Maybe we should do that anyway.
• Danny Green‘s attempts at dribbling used to be a reliable source of humor. They are still sort of awkward and slow, but Green can do stuff off the bounce now. It has been perhaps the most improved part of his game this season. He is decisive and confident going by guys closing out on him, and acting without hesitation makes up for a lot of athletic limitations.
Also: Harden’s closeouts in this series were a joke, from the jump.
• Green’s transition defense remains the most randomly awesome skill in the NBA.
• Manu Ginobili, forever.
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