James Harden’s Rockets faced elimination at home against a Spurs team without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker, perhaps the team’s two most important players. San Antonio won by 39. Thirty-nine! Almost 40. Harden, who was second in the NBA in scoring and first in assists, tied his season low with 10 points (on 11 shots) to go with six turnovers. He fouled out for the first time all season. NBA fans have watched ball handlers roast Harden for years, his bushy beard swaying in the breeze as they whooshed by him, and now it is finally our turn to roast him.
But while one bad performance can lose a game, one bad performance can’t lose a game by 39 points. The Spurs shot over 50 percent on 96 shots, the Rockets shot 29 percent on 77 shots. This was a team-wide whooping. For San Antonio to win without Leonard and Parker against any playoff team would have been impressive, even if it was an 8-seed at home. They just closed out one of the best teams in the Western Conference on the road and did it by, reminder, 39 points.
Just two days ago I wrote that while I enjoyed random Spurs beating the Rockets in overtime of Game 5, I found it unlikely similar players could achieve uncharacteristic success for 48 whole minutes. In 48 hours, Gregg Popovich proved me wrong. A lot of spectacular things happened this NBA season, but the Spurs whooping the Rockets with weirdos was perhaps the most impressive, perhaps behind Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double.
The star was LaMarcus Aldridge, the last player we expected to kill these Rockets. Aldridge seems like a remnant of an older NBA, when a post-dominant center was a must-have. Meanwhile, the Rockets are the newest of the new, a team that shot more 3s than ever before and told everybody they still weren’t shooting enough 3s. In Game 1, Aldridge sputtered to four points while Houston drilled 22 3s and won by 27. It seemed like Aldridge had showed up to play the wrong sport.
But in Game 6, the Spurs paired Aldridge with Pau Gasol and hit only five 3s en route to a 114–75 victory. It was like 2004 called and asked for its NBA back. Aldridge destroyed Houston, scoring 34 points, a season high. The Rockets lost Nene to an injury after Game 4, and without him, they were short on centers. Aldridge dominated Clint Capela, who is an inch shorter than him, but he absolutely feasted on Houston’s small lineups when non-centers Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza guarded him.
But it wasn’t just Aldridge. Here’s Kyle Anderson and Dejounte Murray running a fast break for an alley-oop to put the Spurs up 25 with 14 minutes to go.
Murray, a rookie, played this season in only two scenarios: garbage time and when Tony Parker got hurt. Unfortunately, Parker got hurt again in the playoffs, forcing Murray into action. When he first played, he looked horrible. Mika Honkasalo of HoopsHype helpfully shared videos of the first eight possessions Murray played against the Rockets, featuring two turnovers — one completely unforced — a badly missed shot, a viciously blocked shot, a bad defensive breakdown, and several plays where Patrick Beverley hounded him into uselessness. Here is the first possession he played against the Rockets:
He looked like he had no business being on the court during any NBA game, let alone a pivotal playoff game. After starting again in Game 4, he got a DNP-CD in Game 5, and it seemed Popovich was right to sit him for most of the season.
But in Game 6? Murray was a versatile weapon. His length and strength threw James Harden off on drives, taking away passes the MVP candidate made all season. Murray made useful passes and finished with five assists. He hit layups and floaters and, yes, slapped the damn backboard on an alley-oop to go up 25 points. Less than a week after seeming completely lost, he was talented and tactful enough to fluster a playoff team on both ends of the court.
And we have to let Spurs fans celebrate Jonathon Simmons while he’s still on the team, before he signs an enormous contract elsewhere. (Not bad for a dude who paid for a D-League tryout a few years ago.) He expertly guarded Harden, and after averaging 6.2 points per game in the regular season, he had 18, just two off his career high. He can now finish from any twisting, turning angle in the lane, and he even hit a 3.
The Spurs’ run of NBA success is now old enough to vote, and in a couple of years it will be legally old enough to share finely aged red wines with Popovich, although I suspect he’s been slipping it glasses at home for a few years now. One of the cornerstones of that success has been an ability to find talent where nobody else looked.
But this win was about something different. Sure, Simmons fits that bill — hi, boss — but Aldridge is a five-time All-Star, Gasol is a future Hall of Famer, and Anderson and Murray were first-round picks. It’s not that these were players with strange backstories; these were players who looked mismatched in this series against this opponent within the past few days. Popovich was forced to depend on them after losing his best player and his point guard, and he took these misshapen tools and fashioned a team that was worlds better than the Rockets.
We may now go back to roasting James Harden. It might be time for him to shave.
An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Aldridge’s 34-point performance. It was his highest total of the season, not his highest total since signing with the Spurs.