If you were to simulate the end of Tuesday night’s thriller in Houston a hundred times, it’s tough to say how many result in a Spurs W. The Rockets suffered two careless James Harden turnovers and missed all three shots from deep en route to an 11-point collapse in clutch time. That’s how basketball games go sometimes, and Houston has to take this loss on the beard and move on.
That said, Gregg Popovich was nearly perfect those final five minutes, ensuring the guys on the floor were in the best position to win. With the Spurs now at 23-5, he should be an early favorite for Coach of the Year right now, and wins like last night’s are a reason why.
Pop’s defensive gambit the entire night was running the hot-shooting Rockets off the three-point line whenever possible and living with the consequences. Those efforts helped produce a 6-of-38 night from deep for Houston, but they often meant giving up offensive rebounds (20 in total) and opportunities at the rim (the Rox took 39 shots around the basket).
After giving up the lead briefly about three minutes into the fourth, the Rockets stuck to their scheme and continued to find openings in the meat of the Spurs D. Eric Gordon got to the hoop and the line thanks to a couple of breakdowns, and Trevor Ariza hit an open three soon after. A pair of Ryan Anderson free throws would push that lead to 13 with 4:40 to go.
Both teams had their starting units in at that point, when the Spurs went on a run of their own.
Five straight Tony Parker points made it an 8-point game, and then Pau Gasol Of All People somehow got behind the Rockets D in transition for the easy flush.
Kawhi Leonard turned a steal into a Rockets shooting foul on the following possession, but (very uncharacteristically) missed both his free throws. That didn’t stop Mike D’Antoni from shaking things up, going small with Montrezl Harrell at the five and Trevor Ariza at the four. Pop was quick to answer with an adjustment of his own.
Out went LaMarcus Aldridge and in came Manu Ginobili. The Spurs survived two three-point misses in a row by the Rockets, took the ball down the floor, and Manu hit the open three. The Argentine got his hand on Harden’s dribble the next play down and found Danny Green another triple, leading to a Houston timeout.
In all, the Spurs took 10 of their 23 three-point attempts (and made eight) in the final quarter, which makes some sense since they were behind for most of it. But this was a shift from a team that, even in clutch time, still likes to feast off their bread-and-butter of two-point jumpers. Against the Rockets, Pop was happy to play things a little looser, veering away from the iso game, and it paid off.
With his team still struggling to score, D’Antoni brought in Anderson for Harrell. Pop took Gasol out for Aldridge and also replaced Parker with Mills. This lineup, consequently, (Mills-Green-Leonard-Ginobili-Aldridge) has a net rating of 44.7 in 14 minutes playing together.
Still, the Rockets began to show signs of life. Harden blew by Green (who did a solid job on him the entire night) for a layup and Houston pushed their lead back to six on a Trevor Ariza lay-in. When Ariza stole the ball from Leonard in the backcourt immediately after, the game looked (again) like it was Houston’s to lose.
A pair of Leonard free throws, a drawn charge by Manu, and another Tar Heel triple got the Spurs back within one before things got weird: Leonard poked the ball away from Harden on the next possession but was unable to get a foul call on the other end. The Spurs immediately got the ball back thanks to an errant Ariza pass, which set up this play after a San Antonio timeout.
Of course with the chance to ice the win with free throws, Manu missed both, giving Houston one last shot, down two. With under three second to go, Pop made one last substitution, bringing Jonathon Simmons in for Aldridge. The Spurs defended the Rockets first attempt to inbound the ball well enough to force a timeout, and Simmons was the guy with a hand in Harden’s face when the Rockets star’s shot bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
There are a few ways to look at last night’s win, and they should all include the caveats that any decision can look smarter in hindsight, and that each game has an element of chaos built into it. This was certainly no different. At times, all a coach can do is steer that chaos to the preferential result, and Pop did just that.
The Spurs were 12-2 the when I wrote about their incredible performance in clutch situations, with a net rating of 43 per 100 possession. They’re now 14-3, with that number still hanging around 40. As I cautioned back then, we should still expect both to trend the other way eventually, but having guys able to execute, and an all-time great coach on the sidelines, will most likely curb that regression.