The Houston Rockets bounced back from two rough outings to get even with the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday, but they lost a big piece in the process. The Rockets announced Monday morning that key reserve center Nene will miss the rest of the 2017 postseason after suffering a left adductor tear during Houston’s Game 4 win.
No determination has yet been made as to how the Rockets will treat the muscle tear in Nene’s left thigh. “An update will be provided once a decision is made,” the team said in its statement.
The Rockets didn’t specify when Nene sustained the injury. He appeared to be moving around pretty well after checking in with 5:13 remaining in the opening quarter of Sunday’s Game 4, knocking away an entry pass for Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge before taking it the distance for a fast-break dunk:
Nene seemed to be moving pretty well until this steal/runout dunk and pretty gingerly afterward before checking out: https://t.co/xyda38fdah
After that, though, the Brazilian big man didn’t involve himself in the action too much before fouling Spurs swingman Jonathon Simmons so that he could exit the game with 3:30 to go in the first:
Following his departure, Nene headed to a local hospital for an MRI to determine the extent of the damage. Now we know the bruising reserve won’t return to the Rockets this season.
It’s a difficult blow for the 34-year-old big man, who signed a one-year, $2.9 million deal last summer to back up the young Capela and provide a tough, physical organizing interior principle for a Rockets team looking to shake things up after a disappointing end to the James Harden-Dwight Howard partnership. He’s been just what the doctor ordered in his first year in Houston, averaging 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 17.9 minutes per game as an efficient screen-and-roll finisher, supplementary playmaker and interior deterrent in Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane system.
The 15-year veteran stepped his play up a notch in the Rockets’ opening-round series. He averaged 13.6 points and 6.6 rebounds in 22 minutes per game in Houston’s five-game victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and played a starring role in the Rockets’ Game 4 win, which saw him score a career-playoff-high 28 points on perfect 12-for-12 shooting with 10 rebounds to carry an otherwise flagging Houston offense and put OKC on the brink.
He hadn’t had the same level of impact against San Antonio’s big men as he had in Round 1, though. As our Eric Freeman wrote after Game 4, the combination of his injury and foul trouble for Capela forced D’Antoni to double down on small-ball in a fashion that might offer some insight into how Houston will look to attack the Spurs moving forward:
Those absences forced D’Antoni to play a frontcourt of [stretch four Ryan] Anderson and forward Trevor Ariza, which sapped Houston of any interior heft but put five shooters on the court at once. The lineup isn’t a salve for whatever ails the Rockets, but it could return for Tuesday’s Game 5, especially if Nene remains unavailable.
That said, Houston generally tended to be much more effective with Capela on the floor as a screener, dive man and rim protector in Game 4 than when he wasn’t. The Rockets outscored San Antonio by 21 points in his 25 minutes of floor time, and played them even in the 23 minutes he sat. No-center lineups — no Capela, no Nene, no second-year reserve Montrezl Harrell — were a combined -1 in 19 minutes of floor time on Sunday, according to NBA.com, scoring at a strong clip but conceding at an even stronger one.
That dovetails with a season-long trend. The Rockets haven’t gone super-small-ball that often this year — just 156 total regular- and postseason minutes, according to nbawowy.com — but when they have, they’ve scored like nobody’s business (149.2 points per 100 possessions, which would be like multiplying the best offense of all time by the best offense of all time, and then adding to it the best offense of all time) and given up even more points (154.2 points-per-100, which, y’know, read previous parenthetical, then add one more best offense of all time).
When Houston plays Anderson at center, expect the Spurs to try to involve him in as many pick-and-rolls as possible, looking to take advantage of his struggles to defend quicker players in space, force help defenders to collapse on the paint, and feast on open drive-and-kick looks:
Rockets lineups with Anderson at Center had a 122.2 ORtg but a 135.0 DRtg in the game today. Got a lot of good looks but also gave up plenty
— Krishna Narsu (@knarsu3) May 8, 2017
The question: will D’Antoni give young bigs like Harrell and Chinanu Onuaku — who spent the bulk of this season with the Rockets’ D-League affiliate, logging just 52 total regular-season minutes, and has not set foot on the floor this postseason — longer looks against the Spurs? Or will he decide to damn the torpedoes, run as much five-out basketball as possible with Anderson, possibly reserve forward Sam Dekker and maybe even Ariza at center, and trust that Houston will be able to score more than they give up and cross the finish line first in what’s now a best-of-three sprint?
Given D’Antoni’s well-defined and very public predilection toward praying to the gods of pace-and-space, the answer seems clear. Whether that approach would be effective enough to knock off the Spurs in San Antonio, though, isn’t.
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