Wednesday 21 March 2018 / 10:08 AM


An OT thriller where James Harden recorded a triple-double – and more turnovers than the entire Spurs team – saw San Antonio’s suffocating late-game defence hold on without Kawhi Leonard for an monumental 110-107 win, swinging the series back in their favour.

Both coaches came with guns loaded from the tip, entering the game with line-up changes. Rookie Dejounte Murray was relegated to the bench after two solid yet inconsistent performances for Patty Mills, while the Rockets attempted to capitalise on the success of their small line-up in Game 4, moving Trevor Ariza to power forward and starting an extra guard in Eric Gordon. Both moves as much a forced hand as tactical foresight – Anderson seeing more minutes at centre for the injured Nene and Mills filling the void of Tony Parker.

Anderson at center catapulted the Rockets offense to another level of explosiveness and really found out the slow-footed bigs the Spurs have leaned on in LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee and Pau Gasol in Game 4. Going small right off the bat attempted to replicate this effect, and immediately found success, with James Harden able to drill two step-back threes when switched onto David Lee.

To counter, the Spurs doubled down and made up the deficit by dominating the paint and offensive glass – 18-9 in offensive rebounds and 56-42 points in the paint. The Spurs especially faced criticism after Game 4 for not finding out Harden, who was hiding on Aldridge or Gasol for many possessions. They did a much better job in searching out these mismatches throughout Game 5, going to Aldridge anytime a smaller defender guarded him down low.

Defensively, two specific tweaks from Gregg Popovic swung the game back the way of the Spurs. Firstly, they defended Ryan Anderson with a perimeter guy anytime he was involved in a pick-and-roll at the top of the floor, nullifying the dangerous switches Harden generates which left Anderson wide-open and the Spurs scrambling. Secondly, Popovic’s willingness to play with only one big allowed for more favourable match-ups. Anytime the Rockets attempted to spread the floor with four shooters, the Spurs’ big took the weak side corner shooter, keeping them available for help defence as Harden rolled down the lane. While this did lead to a couple of open shots for Beverly and Gordon, it prevented the initial breakdown and kept the big men away from Harden.

For two balanced offensive units, the clutch stretch of the game and early OT were comprised of some frustratingly bad, isolation-heavy possessions. The fourth quarter finished 17-16 and neither team scored in the first three minutes of overtime.

Without Kawhi Leonard, who went down with a sprained ankle and missed the end of the 4th and the entirety of OT, the Spurs turned to Aldridge to generate the majority of the late-game offence. Aldridge is effective in taking advantage or mismatches in the posts, but struggled to get clean looks whenever guarded by Clint Capela. He finished an inefficient 7-21 and failed to convert on plenty of shoots down the stretch. The Rockets failed to generate anything resembling their regular attack down the stretch, settling for jumpers too often.

Key contributors

Much attention has been directed the way of the Rockets perimeter rotation, but the most valuable contributions came from the Spurs’ guards. Patty Mills was a constant source of energy, racking up a solid 20 points off 7-16 shooting, and was terrific anytime he was forced to guard the ball-handler. Jonathan Simmons, finally given the opportunity at big minutes, did a superb job on Harden in Leonard’s absences, drawing an offensive foul on the last possession of regulation and generating two game-swinging steals in overtime.

Manu Ginobili wound the clock back for his best performance of the post-season. His block on Harden in the last second of OT was risky, but about as clean of a block you will ever see on a jump shot. Danny Green looked like his regular self, knocking down shots and playing excellent defence whenever counted on. His amazing and-1 in OT finished as the game-winning basket.

Looking forward

The Rockets looked gassed towards the end of the game, and for good reason: they only used a seven-man rotation. Without Nene, there isn’t really another option. Montres Harrell gives you all the disadvantages of playing big without any of the legitimate advantages, and because he can be switched onto without a post game, he gives the Spurs a hiding spot. Sam Dekker is the only other player of note, and he isn’t ready. Rather, the Rockets need to run more action, especially on the games big plays. The first three minutes of OT yielded only isolation plays for Harden, failing to register a single bucket, the first action they ran found Beverly wide open for three. With so many weapons on the floor they need to generate better attempts when it counts.

Kawhi Leonard’s sprained ankle is a serious concern. If he can’t go in Game 6 the Spurs are very unlikely to walk away with a win. If he is out for the series, they are in deep trouble.

San Antonio need to control the pace better. Too often they were sucked into running Houston’s quick-fire style, playing right into their hands. They will lose that showdown every time, and need to take advantage of their size.

Pop tried out a line-up of Green-Simmons-Anderson-Kawhi-Gasol. It went well and is something worth pursuing. Sub in Ginobili for Anderson and you’ve really got something there.

Houston need to do a better job of finishing off defensive possessions. Ariza and Anderson, in particular, need to hit the glass harder. Both have the size to contest and shouldn’t be getting destroyed on the glass.

[YouTube – NBA]

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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