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Game 5 Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets

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When James Harden and his electric cast of shooters are locked in, they’re nearly impossible to stop — just ask Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard. And for all the possible ways to win a game, there’s just simply no answer for a team that can knock down 44 percent of their three-point attempts.

Harden’s 28 points and 12 assists led the way in Game 4’s crucial 125-104 victory at home against the San Antonio Spurs. After a tightly contested first half, eight three-pointers in the third quarter broke it open for the Rockets, who’ll head back to San Antonio with the series tied at 2-2.

As Tim Bontemps of The Washington Post elegantly put it: If the Rockets shoot well from three, they’re going to win.

For the Spurs, their elite regular season defense has been no match at times for the Rockets’ long distance strategy, and paid the price again in Game 4. While Leonard is undeniably one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, what can be done against a side that regularly sports just two rotation players that don’t shoot three-pointers? Even without those centers on Sunday — Nene got hurt two minutes into his stint and Clint Capela dealt with foul trouble for large chunks of the game — the Rockets used Ryan Anderson at the position to great impact as well (13 points, four rebounds, 5-for-11).

If not for an impressive stint off the bench from Jonathon Simmons (17 points, four rebounds and two steals), then it could have been even worse for San Antonio. The Spurs have already adjusted to one blowout victory by the Rockets, and the insertion of Gasol into the starting lineup was a game-changer at the time, but Popovich will have his hands full once again.

Eric Gordon was a one-man wrecking machine off the bench, hoisting up shot after shot to the tune of 22 points and a wild 6-for-9 mark from three-point range. Gordon was one of seven Rockets in double-figures, and he and Lou Williams have traded off bludgeoning the opposing team’s weaker second unit all postseason. Even better, the Rockets averaged 15.1 turnovers per game during the regular season in their quick-paced, risk-heavy offense, good for the sixth-highest mark in the league. On Sunday, however, the Rockets turned the ball over just nine times in a 125-point scoring effort — in reality, the Spurs were nothing but bystanders in Game 4.

The Spurs have looked fantastic in this series when the Rockets aren’t impossibly red-hot from deep. In Games 1 and 4, the Rockets made 22 and 19 three-pointers, respectively. In their Game 2 and 3 losses, Houston tallied a combined total of just 23. That isn’t to say that the Spurs’ hopes of moving on simply boil down to more poor shooting efforts for the Rockets — no, that would be a massive disservice to Popovich, Leonard and an entire franchise of championship winners. Still, it’s getting harder to ignore that the Spurs may just be too slow to keep up with the Rockets’ pinging perimeter offense for a full 48 minutes.

Harden just has far too many weapons to choose from in the pick-and-roll, presenting a choose-your-own-poison situation for the Spurs. With Leonard understandably not switching off of Harden, it asks too much of the Spurs’ big man, often Aldridge, who must then quickly chase Anderson or roll to the rim with Capela. When Leonard isn’t on the floor, Harden often gets to the rim with ease and if any help comes, the MVP candidate is more than happy to dump it off.

To the credit of head coach Mike D’Antoni, it’s a strategy that’s far easier to describe than defend, but the Spurs must look to replicate their Game 2 success on Harden. When they do that, the Spurs look like they belong. However, when a team hits 44 percent of their three-pointers, that’s going to make them pretty tough to beat, even with the best two-way player in the world on the opposing side.

Who Wins Game 5?

It’s May, which means it would be extremely foolhardy to doubt Popovich and the Spurs, but, again, 19 three-pointers! Everybody that was expected to contribute from deep did — Gordon the high man at six, Williams the low at just one — and that’s something the Spurs aren’t very well-equipped to stop. Although the Rockets announced the loss of Nene for the remainder of the postseason with a left adductor tear, Anderson found success at center in Game 4. Aside from throwing Dewayne Dedmon into the fire in hopes of changing the defensive tides, Popovich may not have a ton of cards left to play.

The Rockets probably won’t go 19-for-43 from deep again, especially so on the road for Game 5. However, until the Spurs prove they can handle the barrage better, Houston will keep their crucial edge for now. Look for the Rockets to put the Spurs on the ropes in Game 5 and take series lead before the elimination games begin.

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About Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.