The Rockets and Spurs were tied 2–2 in the series and 101–101 in Game 5, a rare thrilling game in a postseason full of blowouts. And then everything hit a wall: The Rockets’ final possession of regulation ended with James Harden committing an offensive foul; the Spurs let Patty Mills — Patty Mills? — try to win the game by himself, and he didn’t get a shot off until after the buzzer. Nobody scored for the first three minutes of overtime, as the two teams combined to go 0-for-6 with three turnovers and two missed free throws.
The Spurs had good reason for sputtering. The team’s classic Big Three of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan has given way to a Big Three of Parker, Kawhi Leonard, and LaMarcus Aldridge— but Parker suffered a season-ending injury in Game 2, Leonard got hurt in the fourth quarter of Tuesday night’s game, and … well … Aldridge is a disappointment to all of us.
So meet the new Spurs Big Three, the players who carried the team down the stretch to a win:
Green scored every Spurs field goal in overtime. To be fair, there were only two, but they were two big ones. Green averaged 7.3 points per game this year, but had seven straight points in the final two minutes of Game 5.
He’s a 3-point specialist, so it wasn’t surprising when he drilled a 3 in overtime — least of all to Gregg Popovich, who said after the game, "He’s getting paid to take shots, so I hope he’s willing." But it was atypical of him go off the dribble, taking James Harden to the rack and finishing a critical and-1 layup with under a minute to go.
Green played 68 games this year. He had one and-1. It was when he got fouled shooting a 3. So this bucket, in a critical moment in overtime of a tied series, was his first and-1 drive of the season.
We know Green can be a pivotal role player for the Spurs — his sharpshooting helped get them to the 2013 Finals and win in 2014 — but here he was, succeeding as the team’s go-to guy.
Simmons played for two junior colleges, something called the "American Basketball League" that went defunct almost instantly, paid $150 for a D-League tryout in 2013, and considered quitting the league so he could get a 9-to-5 job and feed his daughters. Tuesday night he locked down one of the most productive offensive players in basketball history in crunch time of a pivotal playoff game.
Simmons forced Harden into four turnovers in the final six minutes of the game. Sometimes he stayed in front of him, like when he drew an offensive foul on the Rockets’ final possession of regulation; sometimes he popped the ball out from the hands of an unsuspecting Harden after allowing him to drive. The Rockets repeatedly gave Harden the opportunity to win them this game, and Simmons repeatedly flustered him.
Balding Zombie Manu Ginobili
He’s not a new person. In fact, he’s a 39-year-old who came to the Spurs in 2002 as a young man and now has a permanent skin yarmulke poking out from the remnants of his hair. He looked washed earlier this postseason: He missed his first 15 shots of the playoffs and was averaging 3.7 points per game on 29 percent shooting.
But Tuesday night, he reemerged as glorious and crafty as ever. He dunked — just his third dunk of the season:
He spun in this glorious layup:
And loveliest of all, he snuck up on Harden on a last-second shot that would’ve tied the game and calmly stopped the MVP candidate from shooting the ball:
Despite a series lead, the Spurs are in a bad situation. We don’t know what Leonard’s situation is, but they’d be dead in the water without him. They already looked a tad weird without Parker — Patty Mills played a career-high 43 minutes, only the second time in his career he’s gone past 40, as the team didn’t play Dejounte Murray after he "started" Games 3 and 4, and barely played molasses-speed point guard Kyle Anderson. Now take out Leonard, who is as irreplaceable as an NBA player can be — a dominant force on both ends of the court — and the Spurs are fielding shadows.
Without both Parker and Leonard, the Spurs would be dependent on a lot of players to do things they haven’t done all season, or in some cases, at any point in their careers. That’s probably not a recipe for 48 minutes of success against a wonderful Rockets team, and even if they managed to pull it off and win another game and advance to the Western Conference finals, they’d get run off the court by the transcendent Warriors.
But Tuesday night, for about seven minutes there, they managed it. They were seven strange minutes, but they were beautiful.