Rockets Outpace Spurs, Take Game 4 to Even Series

James Harden & Lou Williams
Mar 8, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13, left) and Houston Rockets guard Lou Williams (12) during the third quarter against the Utah Jazz at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

There was only so long Greg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard could keep the Houston Rockets in check.

Pop’s Spurs had managed to hold the Rockets to under 100 points in Game’s 2 and 3, the first time they’ve been held under that mark in back-to-back games all season.

Led by coach Mike D’Antoni, Houston’s offense hit historic levels of scoring this season, shooting more 3 pointers than any team in history and sitting at the top of nearly every statistical leaderboard in the league. An offense like Houston’s is like a shook-up soda can, sooner or later it’s going to explode (only the sickest of references here). After 32.4 percent and 30.8 percent shooting marks from deep in Game’s 2 and 3 respectively, the Rockets appeared to be set to launch coming into Game 4 (Get it? Because they’re the Rockets? And Rockets launch!).

Back-to-back poor offensive efforts? Down 2-1 in the series? At home?

That’s a recipe for a blowout, and Houston did just that in Game 4, running away with a 125-104 win fueled by a dominant second half and 28-point, 12-assist performance from James Harden.

After combined shooting nights of 8-for-19 in Game 2 and 3-for-14 in Game 3 from their bench duo of Lou Williams and Eric Gordon, the Rockets finally got them going in Game 4, linking up for a 14-for-28 mark from the field.

Gordon, in particular, caught fire, going 6-for-9 from behind the 3 point line and finishing with 22 points.

Nene’s groin injury and second-half departure forced D’Antoni to go super small, creating space for Gordon to operate in.

Against the Rockets’ small ball group, the LaMarcus Aldridge-Pau Gasol frontcourt really struggled to keep up.

Aldridge found himself in plenty of awkward positions defensively throughout the third, most of which were caused by Harden.

Aldridge routinely didn’t come out far enough to defend Harden when the mismatch came up, leading to Harden having plenty of room to create both for himself and others.

Above, Aldridge doesn’t trust the help defense of Gasol enough, giving Harden the room to shake free for a three. If you’re going to go with a big lineup against a small one, you have to force the smaller lineup into the paint. The Spurs really struggled to chase Houston off the 3-point line, leading to a parade of good looks for the Rockets.

Simply put, San Antonio lacks the juice to get into a shootout with the best shooting team of all time, or at least the most high-octane one. With Tony Parker out for the remainder of the playoffs, San Antonio doesn’t really have a consistent playmaking option outside of Kawhi Leonard.

Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili might be enough to get past Houston, but not if they’re scoring 125 points and making 19 3’s. As good as Aldridge has been as a secondary scoring option behind Kawhi since his dreadful Game 1 performance, it’s difficult to really justify his style of play in these types of games. You’re fighting 3’s with 2’s, the math isn’t hard here. Plus, when Houston starts to dictate the pace and speed San Antonio up, Aldridge gets moved out of his beloved baseline post-up and can go stretches without even being a factor.

San Antonio’s defense is going to be the key for the remainder of the series. In Houston’s two victories, they shot 50 and 44 3-pointers respectively. In their two losses, they put up only 34 and 39 deep balls. The Spurs need to force Harden and company either into the paint, where San Antonio has a clear size advantage, or into contested 3’s.

Out-shooting the Rockets in a 125-124 battle doesn’t really seem like a possibility for this Spurs team. Next year, when they have Chris Paul (not-that-sneaky hot take for the road, you’re welcome), maybe. This year, when they’ve surrounded Kawhi with the ghosts of Manu and Pau, not as likely.

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