SAN ANTONIO -- Those old ghosts are swirling around a Mike D'Antoni team, just when it seemed like the modern NBA game was ready to validate all he had done to help revolutionize it. Those same criticisms of James Harden's "lazy" style of play are back, built on a late-game stagnation that drove his team into a 3-2 hole. When everything that can go wrong does, and you still had an opportunity to win, it only makes the defeat that much colder.
The Rockets lost to the Spurs 110-107 in overtime Tuesday night as the Spurs took a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven second-round series. It was a tough, ugly, close, tooth-and-nail affair that saw 14 lead changes and six ties. The two teams combined to miss -- not shoot, miss -- 55 3-pointers. Harden had nine turnovers. The Spurs had just 19 second-chance points on 18 offensive rebounds. And yet both teams found ways to respond every time the other would push them to the limit or make a run.
It was a close game, one that Manu Ginobili said was like a coin flip, either team could have won.
But the Rockets lost, and there is no getting around two very painful facts for Houston:
- The Rockets' mighty offense stalled out and died in overtime with no pace, flow or control.
- James Harden failed to deliver his team a 3-2 lead with a chance to close it out in Game 6 in Houston on Thursday.
Those are just facts.
Here's how it happened.
Down two with 30.9 seconds remaining, Harden got a switch onto Danny Green, with space at the rim and with a small-ball lineup on the floor spreading the Spurs out to the perimeter, no rim protection to speak of. He instead saw an angle and passed to Eric Gordon for a 3-pointer that missed.
That's a good look from a good shooter. Yes, Harden had taken Green to town for much of this game, but he saw a quick look opportunity and he took it. What might be worse was that the Rockets wasted a 2-for-1 opportunity there.
Down three, he doesn't even get the ball with 15.7 seconds to go. Patty Mills gets up into Gordon, disrupts the catch and then, when Gordon tries to make his move, anticipates it, jumps it and forces a jump ball.
And then, of course, the block. The Rockets secured possession, but the Spurs stayed up on Ryan Anderson, delaying Harden's time to get into the possession. By that point, he has to make something happen. He got by Ginobili, put the shot up, but Ginobili actually leaped into the air before Harden started his motion. It's a dangerous play. If Harden had pump-faked, even with the clock running down, he draws a foul. But Ginobili instead blocks the shot and the Spurs win.
This was indicative of what happened to the Rockets all night. Harden ground possessions down dribbling, like this one earlier in overtime.
Thing is, he still got a good look out of it. On one of Harden's turnovers in overtime, Jonathon Simmons (who played the game of his life) reached around him coming off a pick and knocked it loose. That's a foul way more often than not. The Spurs, short-handed without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, needed to gamble. And all their gambles paid off.
But the bigger issue is that the Rockets ran out of gas.
"They probably got tired, we just couldn't quite push it," D'Antoni said. "We had a lot of opportunities in those last three minutes to go in the game, knocked down a couple of threes, had good shots but just couldn't make a big play by that point. You know, it was hard fought. We played as hard as we could and we had our chances to win, so be it."
Harden blamed the Rockets' inability to get stops, saying offensive rebounds for the Spurs gave them baskets and messed with the Rockets' pace. But tempo is different from pace. Tempo is about the way you play, the way you move and the urgency you play with. The Rockets didn't have pace because of rebounds Tuesday. They didn't have pace because they looked out of gas.
It's easy to blame the seven-man rotation Mike D'Antoni has gone to, predictably given his history. But the only man out was Nene and Clint Capela was fresh. There are no other guards to turn to, no other wings outside of Sam Dekker, who might not be ready for this moment. It presents an issue, though. The Rockets are tired, and playing a short rotation, and need to play fast with energy.
Something had to give.
It turns out what gave was Game 5 and a chance at taking control of the series.