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Game 3 Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets

Can the Spurs keep rolling in Houston after losing Tony Parker to injury in Game 2?

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After a 27-point blowout loss in Game 1, there were plenty of questions asked about the San Antonio Spurs. Were they too slow to keep up with the Houston Rockets’ never-ending barrage of three-pointers? What was wrong with LaMarcus Aldridge? Could Gregg Popovich make the necessary adjustments to strike back in Game 2?

Well, with Kawhi Leonard, anything is possible.

Leonard’s 34 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and three steals on 13-16 from the floor led the way for San Antonio in their bounceback 121-96 victory at home. After losing a game to the Spurs in Round 1, Memphis Grizzlies’ head coach David Fizdale remarked at the postgame podium that Leonard likely ran on antifreeze. And while onlookers saw the MVP candidate bleed real, mortal blood on Wednesday, that doesn’t make his performance any less superhuman.

Of course, Leonard also played a large role in James Harden’s worst effort of the postseason thus far, holding the MVP candidate to the tune of just 13 points on 3-17 shooting. Unlike his free throw-frenzied series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Harden struggled to get to the line in San Antonio, unable to draw many of his favorite perimeter-based fouls. For most of the game, however, Houston was able to keep pace with the Spurs despite Harden’s tough night, but San Antonio would outscore the Rockets 33-13 in the fourth quarter to pull away for good.

After going 22-50 from deep in the series opener, the Rockets managed just 11 three-pointers in Game 2 — a much-needed ingredient for success in San Antonio. Popovich made some key adjustments as well, swapping David Lee for Pau Gasol in the starting lineup in an attempt to protect the rim more effectively. While Gasol didn’t shoot well (3-11), he was a far better match for Clint Capela in the paint and chipped in with 13 rebounds and four blocks of his own.

Even in victory, more adjustments will be needed as Tony Parker ruptured his left quadriceps tendon in the fourth quarter of Game 2. After undergoing an MRI, the Spurs announced that Parker will miss the remainder of the postseason, a significant blow for the franchise moving forward. While the Spurs have lost their talented floor general — who left the game with 18 points and four assists — for the foreseeable future, a serious injury like this could sadly mean the end of his historic career as well.

As for the Rockets, they hung around thanks to Ryan Anderson’s sublime effort in Game 2. Anderson went just 13-39 over five games against the Thunder, but he crushed the Spurs last night with 18 points on 7-9 shooting. All things considered, the Rockets got 10 or more points from all the key players except for Trevor Ariza (1-5) and Louis Williams (2-7). So, reasonably speaking, if Harden improves, this result could be entirely different in Houston.

Game 3 will be a huge opportunity for Patty Mills as he replaces Parker as the starting point guard. Mills and his steady ball-handling and three-point shooting make him a natural replacement, but can he do it for 30-plus minutes on the road? Leonard will likely handle the ball more often for the Spurs, but Popovich could call on rookie Dejounte Murray for spot minutes as well. Additionally, Jonathon Simmons — who will be a free agent this summer alongside Mills — excelled in his Game 2 role and scored 14 points in 20 minutes off the bench. The Spurs certainly have the personnel to fill in for Parker’s absence, but he’ll be missed in those high-pressure, late-game situations undoubtedly.

For Houston, they’ll look to get back to what they do best. While that is, of course, shooting, it starts with an improved performance from Harden. The Spurs’ outright swap of Leonard on Harden instead of Green was a difference-maker, so Mike D’Antoni must get creative with his counterattack in Game 3. Houston’s offense runs most efficiently when Harden can penetrate and either kick it out or look to draw the foul at the rim. With Leonard taking much of that away, Harden settled for several difficult three-point attempts in Game 2, something that plays right into Popovich’s hands.

Ultimately, it’s tough to envision Harden struggling as badly again and a more efficient effort could swing the momentum back home in Houston’s favor. The Spurs, who looked far too slow to keep up with the Rockets’ tidal wave of three-pointers in Game 1, were up to the task on Wednesday, but questions still linger. It remains to be seen if Gasol, Aldridge and Lee can do enough in the paint to buoy Leonard’s incredible perimeter defense. If they can, the Spurs have a good chance to steal back home court advantage.

Who Wins Game 3?

After Popovich outmaneuvered D’Antoni with his crucial adjustments in Game 2, it’ll be key for D’Antoni to return the favor in kind. With many of Houston’s supporting players contributing enough offensively in Game 2, the onus will fall on Harden to create better shots or get to the line more often than he has so far in this series.

Even if the changes aren’t groundbreaking in nature, it’s unlikely that Harden will be contained so completely in back-to-back games, particularly so on his home court. Given the assumed improvements from Harden and the season-ending injury to Parker, look for Houston to get back on track and win Game 3.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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