Well, James Harden and his ankle certainly appreciated the five-day break between the Rockets’ first-round series and the Western Conference semifinals matchup with their neighbors to the west, the Spurs. He appreciated it so much that Houston handed San Antonio its worst first half of playoff basketball ever, and the Rockets led by 30 at halftime. When OKC’s shortcomings (and Victor Oladipo’s shooting percentage) sent the Rockets 200 miles west for Game 1, a 126–99 whooping (everything is bigger in Tex — too soon?) was not what we expected from this interstate rivalry. But here we are, with San Antonio down a game, having lost its identity to a new-age team that made it hail from outside and drove to the basket quicker than Billy Donovan can say “bench.”
James Harden Back
Whatever MVP beef, bum ankle, or straight-up slump was ailing Harden in the OKC series is gone. Harden opened with a swish from behind the arc, causing Pop to panic and immediately call a timeout. Turns out that panic was well-founded, and the Rockets continued throttling them. Harden immediately got to the line, and a minute later, threw a lob to Clint Capela, serving up sample spoons of all he can do healthy. He led the Rockets’ fast pace, which turned out to be just the first knife in the Spurs’ inflatable raft.
There’s a reason kids at college parties in Phoenix still play a drinking game called “Seven Seconds or Less” (or if you don’t, you’re welcome). The D’Antoni dream was close-to-perfect in the Game 1 blowout. San Antonio, with the fourth-slowest pace in the league, fantasizes of half-court sets and using the possession to keep the game down-tempo; the Rockets feast on fast breaks and pull-ups. On a night when a majority of its shooters are hot, Houston’s perimeter attack can break any defense — even in the playoffs, even against the team with the best defensive rating.
Monday night, the Rockets scored in all the ways that give Gregg Popovich nightmares: They pushed downcourt to get 27 fast-break points, they bullied inside for another 36, and they pulled up for 22 3s, each one turning Moreyball skeptics into believers.
Harden’s teammates were celebrating his revival by matching him from 3. The Rockets were a flurry from the first quarter: Trevor Ariza hit a 3 from deep, followed by two from Ryan Anderson. Sixth and seventh men (you decide which is which, because I change my mind with each 3) Eric Gordon and Lou Williams combined for five more by the end of the night. By halftime, five individual Rockets had hit from behind the arc, and the team ended the game shooting 44 percent.
San Antonio’s Glaring, Seven-Foot Problem
LaMarcus Aldridge is turning into the biggest disappointment in Texas big men since DeAndre Jordan ghosted Mark Cuban two seasons ago. Jordan was never officially a Maverick, but Aldridge’s case is not that different: both committed; neither arrived.
Popovich’s practice of grooming newer stars allows his past-their-peak guys to age well in San Antonio. It’s why Tony Parker’s bumpy year mostly evaded criticism. That 61–21 record covers up a lot of problems — kind of like the basketball version of a magical anti-aging cream. Acquired at 29, LaMarcus was supposed to fit next to Kawhi Leonard to keep that system fluid.
Two years later, in Game 1, he finished with four points, six rebounds, and a minus-36.
Here’s bizarre: Ryan Anderson manhandling LaMarcus Aldridge in the post. Rather, Anderson frustrating the former star — yes, former — into being worse than absent. LaMarcus couldn’t hang with anyone on defense. When he guarded Harden on the perimeter, James would blaze past (which, to be fair, happens to most guys covering Harden), and he looked slow on every Rocket he switched onto. Aldridge couldn’t stop Capela when Harden choo-choo-train spoon-fed Clint baskets underneath; he couldn’t stop Patrick Beverley’s 3; he fell for fouling Anderson.
Aldridge looked far from the guy averaging 26 points in the 2014 postseason, just a year before the Spurs would scoop him. Still, he started the second half. A turnover, missed jumper, and rebound later, Pop yanked him for good.
The Only Thing Scarier Than Pop Is Vengeful Pop
The only scenario worse than trailing Gregg Popovich is blowing out Gregg Popovich, who masters adjustments better than any coach in the league. Now he’s tasked with stopping a lethal perimeter team, but also with getting Kawhi the help he needs on offense to keep up. In Game 1, it certainly wasn’t Tony Parker, who levitated out of a season-long slump to provide over 53 percent shooting against the Grizzlies, but ended with just 11 points and three assists on Monday. Parker was the only other starter to add double-digit scoring, and only Jonathon Simmons provided that from the bench (also with 11). Here’s a thought, or maybe, 84 million thoughts: It should have been LaMarcus.
Houston likely won’t drain 22 3s every game in the series, but the threat — and the Game 1 lead it materialized into — is still in San Antonio’s face.