HOUSTON -- You're going to talk about how surprising it was that the San Antonio Spurs did what they did in on Thursday night. It seemed so ripe for a Houston victory on its home floor, with Kawhi Leonard out, and so you're going to want to destroy the Rockets for losing this game, given the circumstances.
Do not fall for this. Do not be suckered in. Nothing about what the Spurs did should surprise you.
Not how they came back after being trounced in Game 1.
Not how they survived the loss of Tony Parker to a leg injury.
Not how they responded after losing Game 4.
Not how they demoralized and humiliated James Harden, MVP candidate.
And not how they did this in Game 6 without Leonard.
This is not surprising, this is not amazing, it is not a stunner.
It is the Spurs.
This is the culmination of everything they put into their organization, from how they handle rest with a long-term vision, to their rigorous schedules and nutrition programs, to their iron-curtain approach to media access, to the precision with which they play. When Leonard was announced as out for Game 6, immediately a buzz went through the media. Half thought "well, that'll do it for this game, see you back in San Antonio for Game 7." But the others had seen this movie before. They had seen how many times the Spurs had responded when a star, or stars, were out, and how the team always found a way to lock in.
If anything, Leonard's absence in Game 6 should have signaled a Spurs victory. A star player being out has always had an affect on both teams. You see it in the regular season all the time. It focuses the team that's short, having to establish a tone and play together. And it can easily, and so often does, cause the other team to let its guard down.
The Spurs moved the ball in ways we did not see with Leonard on the floor. That's not to say they are a better team without Leonard. It means that in an elimination game on the road with a chance to advance to the Western Conference finals, the dynamic completely shifted. The Spurs' offense was different, the Rockets' approach to guarding them changed, everything shifted.
This is not an excuse for the Rockets, who truly and completely embarrassed themselves on the biggest stage in the final game of their season. They should have won this game, as they should have won Game 5. But they did not, and while the sports world will obsess over the myriad failures of Houston -- and that list is long -- in Game 6, it will also overlook how remarkable, and probably predictable, the Spurs' victory was.
LaMarcus Aldridge rising from the grave, in a series where many had said he was "done," to score 34 in a dominating performance inside. Jonathon Simmons, a D-League tryout player who wound up shifting this series in ways that will not draw enough respect, continuing his LeBron James impression with 18 points and tough, physical play. And everywhere, everywhere that Spurs defense, swiping at Harden's handle, forced outward by the guard coming over the back with a big waiting at the rim. The Spurs figured out Harden in this series, and with it, figured out the Rockets' offense.
If it were any other team, you would be amazed at the result. Gregg Popovich himself seemed stunned postgame, saying that it was "one of those nights where we are not as good as we looked and they're not the team that people are used to seeing in Houston." But that's what the Spurs do. Winning without their best player is what the Spurs do. Taking the best series of the entire playoffs pre-Finals, most likely, and turning it into a bummer of a blowout? That's what the Spurs do, too. Finding a way, always finding a way to win when you start to wonder if they really have it anymore? That's definitely what the Spurs do. And then they downplay it.
Now, though, they'll have to do it against the best team in the league. On paper, the Warriors should wipe the floor with the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. They have more firepower, a fully healthy roster, home-court advantage. They don't rely on 3-pointers as much as Houston does -- that's a misconception -- and can attack the rim at will. They have a better defense than Houston and a better offense than the Spurs. San Antonio designed this team with the thought that it could counter the Warriors' pace and space with size and precision.
But if they're going to challenge the Warriors, or, sure, let's dare to say it, beat them four times out of seven, they're going to need to do what they did in this series. The Spurs didn't find some magical lineup, though playing Simmons at small-ball four was a gamble that paid off huge. They didn't find some sort of epic counter. They just found a way. The way they always do.
They'll have to have these games where you have no explanation for what happened, and they're going to have to be even better. It's going to take the unimaginable for San Antonio to take even three games off the Warriors and push them.
But then ... this is the Spurs.
That's what they do.