A close series ended in a dud.
The last game between the Rockets and the Spurs fell just short of playoff game of the year. In the first half, James Harden displayed unconscious shooting while Houston’s offense sliced up San Antonio. But Harden fell apart down the stretch, as he often does, failing to score after the 3:12 mark in the fourth quarter as Houston went on to lose in overtime.
Now, the Rockets find themselves in must-win territory at home for Game 6 with a best-case scenario of a decisive Game 7 on the road in San Antonio.
Houston’s caught breaks; they just haven’t taken advantage of them. The Spurs lost Tony Parker to a ruptured left quadriceps tendon in Game 2, an injury that’s sidelined him for the season and put the veteran point guard’s future in doubt. They also won Game 5 down the stretch without Kawhi Leonard, who turned his ankle midway through the fourth and sat the final minutes of that quarter and overtime.
This exciting second-round playoff series has been everything we’ve expected, and then some.
The two teams are of course led by individuals who both belong within the top-five in the league. (The All-NBA voting will almost certainly reflect that this season.) Beyond that, the Rockets boast depth that accentuates their Mike D’Antoni-led offense that demands threes and layups at a rate we’ve never witnessed before. In San Antonio, the roster is staggered with slightly more hierarchy with an emphasis on the kind of fundamentally sound two-way players who have made the Spurs so successful over the years.
The Spurs won the season series three games to one, but the more important takeaway from those games is how close they were. Three of the final scores were decided by only two points, while the outlier was a six-point San Antonio win. When four games are determined by an average of three points, it really indicates that this series could be a coin flip.
San Antonio, by adding two-time champion Pau Gasol and the playoff-wizened LaMarcus Aldridge to the old crew of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, boasts more playoff experience, but Houston doesn’t lack for veterans, either. This series may come down to which superstar leader can outshine the other.
Game 1: Rockets 126, Spurs 99
Game 2: Spurs 121, Rockets 96
Game 3: Spurs 103, Rockets 92
Game 4: Rockets 125, Spurs 104
Game 5: Spurs 110, Rockets 107
Game 6: Spurs 114, Rockets 75
Key matchup: San Antonio’s centers vs. Houston’s centers
It would be easy to put down Leonard and Harden in this spot. Coming off two first-round series where both starting centers were played off the floor, though, it’s worth looking at the big men in the middle.
The Spurs’ Dewayne Dedmon started the first three games against Memphis, but he was benched in Game 4 and played five minutes the rest of the series. Gasol and David Lee filled in for him, two offensively skilled big men who lack defensively. For Houston, while Clint Capela never lost his spot in the starting five, it got so bad with Capela dropping passes and flubbing layups that Harden asked D’Antoni to take him out. Instead, Nene played 51 minutes combined in the final two games, where he shot 17-of-20 from the floor.
Both starting centers are the only real hope for a traditional, defensive-minded approach from either team. If they get benched, we may see entire quarters featuring small ball, but Houston or San Antonio being able to rely on an effective shot blocker (plus roll man) could be enough to swing the entire series.