Boy, you almost felt sorry for the Not Golden State Warriors tonight.
Sure, the Not Golden State Warriors had been playing well, winners of nine of their past 12, and they were going to be at full strength for once with Dwight Howard back after he missed the past two games with a sprained ankle. And yes, the Spurs were still going to be without their best interior defender in Tim Duncan, who's nursing a troublesome right knee. But you knew in your heart of hearts that that stuff wouldn't matter. More to the point, you knew the the Not Golden State Warriors knew that it wasn't going to be their night, by mere circumstantial happenstance. The actual Golden State Warriors took the Spurs out behind the woodshed on Monday night and for that there would be a price to pay for the next poor saps on the schedule, whomever they happened to be. You knew the Not Golden State Warriors were going to catch all the hands on Wednesday at the AT&T Center and you just hoped, for their sake, that not too many of those two-pieces caught them in the face. By the great providence of the basketball gods, the Not Golden State Warriors just happened to be a squad with Howard, James Harden and Jason Terry on the roster, and lo and behold I didn't feel as bad for the Not Golden State Warriors as I would have under ordinary circumstances.
For real though, that game was weird on a number of levels. I was thrilled to see LaMarcus Aldridge respond well after his terrible performance the other night, and come out aggressively right from the start, and clearly the Spurs were sharper and far more focused offensively, moving the ball and largely eliminating turnovers (except for the South American correspondent who didn't get the memo), but just the sight of a small-ball starting lineup, with Kyle Anderson in there next to Kawhi Leonard to offset the Trevor Ariza-Corey Brewer combination, was disorienting. Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been trying a different lineup of late, breaking up the "twin towers" duo of Howard and Clint Capela we saw in the first two meetings between these teams and didn't play them together at all Wednesday night. Meanwhile Terrence Jones, a stretch four who had been a big part of their rotation in those games, has been relegated to garbage time duty after the Rox warmly welcomed back Josh Smith into the fold after the Clippers shipped him out in a wooden crate with a hole cut into the top for ventilation.
Then there was the whole Harden part of it, which was even more bizarre. The hirsute matador has been on a tear recently, with a bonkers 33-17-14 triple-double vs. the Pistons, 30-5-8 vs. the Bucks, 23-15-10 vs. the Mavs and 35-11-8 at New Orleans. Against the Spurs though I've never seen him so on the periphery, playing but not really making his imprint on the game. Leonard and more so Danny Green did a very good job on him to be sure, but Harden just seemed to lack his usual giddy up, especially in the first half, despite Houston's otherwise hot start. Perhaps he was a little fatigued. Perhaps he sensed there was a more meaningful game for him on the horizon, with a trip to Oklahoma City next on their schedule and the prospect of a far more generous defense and an up-and-down fast-paced game. Maybe he knew they were catching the Spurs at their ornery best. But he took just 10 shots in 27:36 and no one --certainly not Howard-- took up his slack.
Beyond the Harden thing the game was notable for giving the Spurs some practice with a small-ball lineup. Aldridge struggled early on as the sole lane protector in pick-and-rolls with Houston making their first eight shots and the weak side rotations coming too late, but eventually both he and the rest of the team adjusted, they took away the Rockets lobs ---a few awry passes helped-- and the Spurs gained separation thanks to the Rockets shambolic transition defense.
The home side emulated their most recent conquerors, drilling 12-of-23 threes with Green canning 6-of-8 and Leonard 3-of-4, almost all of them coming off transition or courtesy just one or two simple passes. The Spurs finished with a season-high 130 points and their 34 assists were one short of their most this year, but it wasn't exactly a whirlwind of passes out there, with the ball pinging back and forth one side of the floor to the other in blurry, dizzying fashion. Most of the time one or two passes was ample enough to get Green wide open. It's probably not a coincidence that San Antonio's 12 threes were one away from a season-high, only being bested by the 13 they hit... against the Rockets in a 121-103 home win on Jan. 2, with Green an identical 6-of-8 from downtown in that one as well.
Look at how simple this stuff is...
Parker beating everyone down the floor off a make and taking advantage of token resistance from Ariza.
Ariza trying the scenic route around a Green screen.
Howard doing an excellent impersonation of a Dwight Howard cardboard poster.
Another one pass three.
Harden as honorary Pounder, watching a Manu highlight
Again, Harden barely in the picture.
Mr. Harden, please pick up the white courtesy phone.
Ooh, so close.
Howard, just watching.
Marcus Thornton missing a box out.
And on and on it went. You thought the Spurs video session after the Warriors game was brutal, imagine the horror show when Bickerstaff and his assistants replay the film. Gregg Popovich is famous for saying "you have to participate in our own recovery" and in this case the Rockets sure participated in San Antonio's, with some of the laziest, most apathetic play from an opponent we've seen all year.
On second thought, yeah, they don't deserve our pity.
Your Three Stars:
1. LaMarcus Aldridge
2. Danny Green
3. Kawhi Leonard
Up Next: At Cleveland (32-12):
After a brief respite it's back on the plane for the Spurs for a Stampler birthday special in "The Land." I'm not sure if you've heard, it kind of snuck under the radar in the wake of that big Josh Smith trade back to the Rockets, but the Cavs fired coach David Blatt the other day, for good reason. I mean, his team did get annihilated by the Warriors, of all teams. The Warriors! Can you imagine? It will be a chess match between our two future All-Star Game head coaches and quite frankly I'm getting tired of people given Tyronn Lue a hard time about getting tabbed for the honor. It's pretty obvious he's an extraordinary head coach if he was selected to be the skipper in the All-Star Game after winning two games. It took Pop 437 wins and two championships before they let him coach his first one in 2005. Anyway, the Cavs have won two in a row at home, somehow overcoming the mighty Timberwolves and the foreboding Suns, so they're basically on fire. The Spurs narrowly won in the first meeting between these two teams on Jan. 14, coming back from an early 15-point deficit. Leonard neutralized LeBron James and Parker totally outplayed Kyrie Irving. That, and the huge bench disparity, made all the difference. I don't know if Duncan will play, but it sure would be swell, as long as his knee doesn't swell afterward.