HOUSTON -- If the San Antonio Spurs were going to drag this old-school, mid-range, two-big team - -particularly without Tony Parker -- past the new-age, new-look Rockets, it was going to take everything going right.
They were going to have to make shots to set their defense. They were going to have to protect the rim with physicality and pinpoint rotations. They were going to have to recover multiple times on each possession. They were going to have to live with a big James Harden night. And they were going to have to dare the Rockets to miss 3-pointers and get the gambles to go their way.
They got all that in Game 3, and it gave them a 2-1 lead over Houston to recapture home court in a 103-92 victory.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol combined for 38 points, matching the production the Rockets got from the perimeter. They showed and recovered, they challenged Houston at the rim and formed a wall that forced the mid-range-averse Rockets into shooting 4-of-13 on floaters, the second-to-last shot they want, behind only mid-range jumpers. If Game 1 was proof that if San Antonio misses shots, the Rockets will run-and-gun them out of the building, Game 3 was proof that if they make shots, they can strangle the Rockets into a muffled, frustrated version of what they want to be.
"Pau (Gasol) is long, LaMarcus Aldridge is long," Patrick Beverley said. "They're trying to take away the alley-oop and (the mid-range or floater) is the shot that's there."
"We tried to make them shoot over a big, and not get to the rim," LaMarcus Aldridge said. "I thought Pau was big."
And he was. The 36-year-old future Hall-of-Famer contested inside, made shots, dished passes high to low to set up Aldridge, and helped wall off the paint to deter Houston. The idea going into the series, and especially after Game 1, was that two-big lineups would struggle vs. Houston's pace and shooting. But three things have happened:
- The Spurs offense came alive, allowing them to get back in transition
- Aldridge and Gasol have made concerted efforts to challenge on offensive rebounds, further delaying the Rockets' transition.
- Houston hasn't made them pay by hitting shots.
Gasol and Aldridge are a plus-10.4 per 100 possessions since Game 1 of this series. Aldridge and Lee are plus-14.1. Gasol with Jonathan Simmons at power forward is plus-30.2 in limited minutes.
San Antonio ran Houston's shooters off the line hard, they challenged them, they tracked them down in transition... and Houston still shot 39 3-pointers. They made just 12. Ryan Anderson, Patrick Beverley and Eric Gordon were 3-of-13 on uncontested shots, many of them 3s. The reality comes down to this: If Houston closer to 40 percent through the mid-way mark of the fourth quarter before the game fell out of reach, the story is different. That's not to say san Antonio's defense has nothing to do with those misses. Again, they had a game plan and they executed it. But Houston still got shots it can, and often does, make. That will likely be the case again in Game 4.
In many ways, Aldridge was the story for San Antonio. His play resembled a vomit fountain at mid-court for most of this series, and Game 3 was his resurrection.
"This was his best game, obviously," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He felt good tonight. He was loose as far as his physical nature, his legs and everything. He wasn't too stiff. It showed. He moved up and down the court well. He was able to push off on the block, and he felt good shooting the ball, in addition to busting his butt on D, and trying to get the boards for us, he was a big help tonight."
That's about as effusive of praise as you'll hear from the Spurs coach.
The Spurs were on the road, in a 1-1 series, facing a fast, offensive juggernaut, without their Hall of Fame point guard, and still they controlled the pace, controlled the game, and smashed their way into a 2-1 series lead behind an approach that is contrarian to today's small-ball, 3-point volume NBA. The Spurs are not doing it the way everyone else is, but they are doing it.
Game 3 was big for the Spurs, in more ways than one.