The Houston Rockets decimated the San Antonio Spurs so thoroughly in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on Monday that it seemed necessary for Gregg Popovich and his staff to come up with a number of adjustments. Given the Rockets’ bevy of 3-point shooters and superior athleticism, was there a way for the Spurs to get away with playing two big men? Would they have to turn to little-used bench players for a dose of quickness? Or would Kawhi Leonard simply have to never rest?
The answer turned out to be pretty basic — focus, expend more effort, and make your shots. No, the Spurs didn’t need to make big changes to the formula that helped them to a 61-21 record this regular season. “Play a lot better” was enough, and they have the series-tying 121-96 victory to prove it.
In truth, the Spurs did make the fairly significant adjustment of inserting Pau Gasol into the starting lineup for David Lee. While the two veterans are both offensively minded big men and the change represented something of a like-for-like swap, Gasol offers a more varied skill set and seemed to energize the offense in the early stages of Game 2. The Spurs scored 33 points in the first quarter, or just six fewer than they put up in the entire first half of Game 1.
But the biggest difference in the Spurs’ performance went beyond tactics and strategy. More than anything, they played with energy and commitment that was not apparent on Monday. They were quicker to loose balls, challenged the Rockets’ shots faster, moved the ball both vertically and horizontally around the court, etc. Desperation can be a major factor in playoff performances, and the Spurs team that took the floor on Wednesday looked like a group that felt obligated to even the series.
For the most part, that improvement manifested itself at the offensive end. San Antonio’s first-half stats were staggering — 27-of-48 shooting from the field (56.3 percent), 6-of-12 shooting from beyond the arc, 19 assists against just one turnover, and four players with at least nine points. The Spurs cooled off a bit in the second half, but their offensive performance still ranks as one of the best we’ve seen from any team in the playoffs.
The bulk of the credit goes to Leonard, who followed a pedestrian Game 1 with the kind of superstar showing that defined his opening round devastation of the Memphis Grizzlies. Leonard dominated Game 2, putting up 34 points on hyper-efficient 13-of-16 shooting from the field, eight assists, seven rebounds, and three steals.
Dig into his impact a little more, though, and Kawhi’s night looks even better. ESPN’s stats department notes that the Spurs shot 8-of-9 on his potential assists and just 43 percent on all other attempts, a mark of how far he has come as a creator.
As good as Kawhi was, though, the Spurs could not have played so well if their role players hadn’t stepped up. In Game 1, their lineups often looked like Leonard and four guys who would struggle to find minutes on lottery teams. On Wednesday, the likes of Tony Parker, Danny Green, and LaMarcus Aldridge looked more like the playoff-tested veterans we know them to be.
Green matched his previous 2017 playoff-high in the first half with 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting, and Aldridge bounced back from a lackadaisical effort with a respectable 15 points, eight boards, and two blocks.
Unfortunately for the Spurs, Parker might not have the chance to match his 18 points again in these playoffs. The severity of the left leg injury he suffered in the fourth quarter won’t be known until doctors assess his MRI on Thursday, but the instant replays and post-game reactions of several members of the Spurs suggests that he will be out for some time. San Antonio already lacked backcourt depth, and they would likely struggle to keep up with Houston if he cannot play again this series.
However, the Rockets should remain confident for Game 3 and beyond regardless of Parker’s condition. While the margin of victory and San Antonio’s offensive explosion suggest a full-scale blowout, this contest only really got out of hand in the final few minutes.
Houston trailed by a mere three points after the first quarter and cut a 10-point halftime lead to as few as three before Jonathan Simmons nailed a buzzer-beater to end the third quarter. A strong start to the fourth quarter gave the Spurs a 97-83 lead by the time Parker went down, but at that point it still wasn’t out of the question that the Rockets would come back. They were in this game until the Spurs responded to that injury with an impressive run to create several minutes of garbage time.
Plus, the Rockets managed to play Game 2 at their preferred pace and style, even as many of their most capable players missed shots. As in Monday’s opener, Game 2 was played at a fast tempo with both teams getting open looks from beyond the arc and plenty of chances to drive. The difference on Wednesday was largely that some of the toughest shots went in for the Spurs and many of the easiest didn’t for the Rockets. In contrast to the Game 1 blowout, only Ryan Anderson (18 points on a difficult 4-of-5 from beyond the arc) can be said to have played especially well. This result was an acceptable one on a night when James Harden struggled on his way to 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting.
The two final scores suggest we could be in for a high-variance series, but either way, we seem to be back on track for the competitive, well-played matchup we were promised. Game 2 isn’t going to be a new normal for either team, but the same was true of the Rockets’ overwhelming win. We’ll see which team gains the next advantage, however short-lived it may be, on Friday in Houston.
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