NBA Playoffs: After Game 4, Rockets-Spurs becomes battle of willpower and philosophy
Muscle and thunder meets speed and lighting; may the best squad win
HOUSTON -- Don't think of Spurs-Rockets as a chess match. That means there are pieces all over, interlocking and combatting one another in complicated ways. This is not D'Antoni's rook to Pop's Knight 3. This is a tug of war, a push and pull between two distinctly different ways of viewing basketball.
On one side, Gregg Popovich has won two games with the Spurs behind a double-big, grind-them-out, slow-it-down, contested Kawhi Leonard mid-range and LaMarcus Aldridge ground-and-pound assault. In Games 2 and 3, they swung the rope to their side, threatening to slide the Rockets right out of the game with brute force.
On the other, Mike D'Antoni's Rockets blitzed the Spurs with pace and space, drilling 3's and getting to the rim at will in Game 1, then, facing the edge of oblivion, Houston -- out of necessity as much as anything-- doubled down on its approach in Game 4, going nitro-small in a 125-104 victory Sunday to even the series 2-2.
Best of three. Muscle and thunder vs. speed and lightning. Let's settle how you can win in today's NBA, right here in Texas.
In Game 4, there was a lot that seemingly went against the Rockets' way. Clint Capela picked up foul trouble, while Nene that looks like it could sideline him for the duration of the series. The Rockets were forced to bring Ryan Anderson off the bench at center in the third quarter as the Spurs made their run. The Spurs pounded the ball down low to LaMarcus Aldridge and scored time and time again. But the Rockets matched them with speed and 3-pointers.
The Math Problem, as it's called, came about, and Houston outscored the Spurs by one point the rest of the way, prompting Popovich to throw the towel in. The reserves were deployed, and the series resets as it shifts to San Antonio for a huge Game 5.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 10 points in the 3rd quarter... but the Rockets made eight 3-pointers.
"What was going through my mind was going ... 3 ... 2 ... 3 ... 2 ...," D'Antoni said after the game. "I kind of liked the math."
This is what so much of the series comes down to, just as it did to start the series. If the Spurs can beat up the Rockets, score, and take away their speed and range while playing big, they'll win. If the Rockets can run them out of the gym, they'll win. These adjustments are not a never-ending series of counter-moves. It's tic-tac-toe, with the Spurs and Rockets trying to get three in a row first. Well, maybe four in a row for the Spurs since 3's are what the Rockets want.
When asked about the challenge of living with Aldridge scoring at will against that small lineup while the Rockets did what they did best, D'Antoni broke this series down to its fundamentals for the Rockets' entire philosophy.
"We can keep scoring with them," D'Antoni said. "And if they get a little flurry, we get one. They had trouble stopping us on the other end. You have to hold your breath a little bit, because we have to play that way. That's how we play. It's not a safe way to go, but you have to exploit what you have. That's the team we have."
Patty Mills pointed to adjustments the Rockets made in this game. One of those adjustments was the kind of pass James Harden made. Harden had one of his best games of the playoffs, with 28 points on 10-of-18 shooting and 12 assists. The past two games, the Spurs have focused on taking away the lob pass, leaving the shooters above the break, who are harder to see, wide open. Harden made them pay in Game 4. Watch how the Spurs collapse on the lob man Capela while Gordon slips up higher to make it tougher for Mills to recover:
For Popovich, the game was lost in the first quarter, when the Rockets had 13 fast-break points. That built a lead San Antonio could never recover from, despite the Rockets only scoring two more fast-break points until the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach.
"You know for us," Popovich said after the game," our bible begins with transition defense and if it's not there then we're just not ready to go. But if you had seen clips of our transition D you would trade all the players and fire me by the end of the game. So it was that bad."
"Plus," he continued, "they were that intense. And they were that focused. And they were that professional. And we were not."
So there you have it. Two games to muscle and precision. Two games to speed and range. A best-of-three to go, with the Warriors waiting beyond. This series isn't just about who plays better, or who has better talent. It's about two opposing approaches to the game, and which can best one another in a game of wills and execution.
The Spurs and Houston both credited the Rockets' intensity. You can bet the Spurs will find their own back home in Game 5. In a battle of opposing philosophies, it may come down to whose willpower and discipline to their beliefs hold true as the pressure increases in this battle of two great teams, down in Texas.
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