Following his Game 4 rout of the Spurs, Mike D’Antoni sat in front of the press and addressed whether or not he’d considered abandoning a small-ball lineup during a stretch in the third quarter when his team seemed overmatched in the paint by San Antonio bigs.
The Rockets coach held out both hands, cast his distinctly toothy grin, and illustrated the simple inequity between three points and two.
.@HPbasketball asked #Rockets HC Mike D'Antoni about his small lineup mindset. 3 > 2 pic.twitter.com/z1XrzTwza0— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) May 8, 2017
Even on Friday night, after losing his second game in a row and falling behind 2-1 in the series, D’Antoni seemed to take things in stride. His opponent, he said, hadn’t done all that much differently, and the loss had come down to his team’s singular inability to create and hit open three-point shots.
By contrast, Gregg Popovich’s assessments have leaned a tad more on the idiosyncrasies that factor into Spurs wins and losses -- how poor offense leads to poor transition defense; on the importance of his guys’ keeping their hands back and up when matching up with James Harden to avoid fouling; how LaMarcus Aldridge’s confidence and the dubious status of his knee impact how well he’s able to score.
It speaks to the difference in ideological approaches for each coach but also, perhaps, to the margins for error both are contending with. From the Rockets’ perspective, victory comes through a couple of variables plugged into an already-decided formula. The shots will fall, or they won’t.
For the Spurs, a winning formula has been more complicated up until now; more dependent on individual personalities and performances, on what lineups happen to work game to game, and, ultimately, on the incidental fortunes of their opponents from three-point range. It is, very possibly, more difficult to achieve.
It could be that San Antonio finds a simpler answer, through sheer size, in exploiting one of its greatest advantages in the series. Or we could have another game where the all the cross-matches and various other electrons flying around decide things. Or the Rockets will just make enough tough shots for it not to matter.
May 9, 2017 | 7:00 pm CDT
Series tied 2-2
Watch: TNT; Listen: 1200 WOAI
Spurs injuries: Tony Parker (OUT)
Rockets injuries: Nene (OUT)
The fallout of Nene’s injury
The Rockets’ backup center is done for the playoffs, lost to a groin injury sustained in Game 4. D’Antoni adjusted on Sunday by going even smaller, a strategy that the Spurs failed to take advantage of, even when Aldridge or Gasol was being guarded by Harden on the low block.
It’s thought that the Rockets may shake their starting lineup up and play guard Eric Gordon instead of power forward Ryan Anderson. That’ll mean Trevor Ariza as the de facto 4 to start the game and plenty of minutes with Anderson at center later on. It could be the biggest test yet for the Spurs against Houston’s shooting and spacing.
How do the Spurs adjust?
We’ve seen Pop win both ways, so this is hard to say, although it’s worth checking out Michael Erler’s compelling case for full-time small-ball.
The Spurs had some success with going big-big by putting Aldridge on Ariza earlier in this series, but the Rockets wing responded with a strong, aggressive performance in Game 4. When he’s slashing and given enough space to go off the dribble, he goes from an offensive weakness to a strength relatively quickly.
San Antonio doesn’t necessarily need to play a true big to exploit the Rockets’ small lineups, either, as long as they’re able to get to the basket more often -- especially when Anderson is at the five or when they’re pulling Clint Capela out to the perimeter.
What version of Aldridge will we see?
Just as the Rockets happen to look more lethal when their shots are going down, a lot of the Spurs’ woes go away when they get the most out of LaMarcus. Kawhi can pretty much do it all, but he can’t be everything if San Antonio hopes to win Game 5.
Vegas line: Spurs by 5.5.
Game prediction: Spurs by 3.
For the Rockets fan’s perspective, visit The Dream Shake.
As always Tony must dominate Fisher.
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