HOUSTON -- Fans wearing red and white flocked to the Toyota Center exits during a timeout with 2:58 remaining in Friday night’s Game 3, figuring the San Antonio Spurs’ dozen-point lead seemed insurmountable. That’s not what “Run As One,” the slogan on the giveaway T-shirts, is supposed to mean.
But the Houston Rockets’ pretty, prolific brand of basketball, seen as recently as their road rout in the series opener, suddenly has sputtered as the Spurs have seized control of the Western Conference semifinal series. The Rockets, the NBA’s second highest-scoring team, have been held under 100 points in consecutive games for the first time since offensive mastermind Mike D’Antoni’s arrival in Houston.
“They shouldn’t be able to dictate our flow,” Rockets sixth man Eric Gordon said after a 103-92 loss in Game 3, when Houston lost the home-court advantage it stole in the series opener and was held to its fewest points in a game this season.
That, however, is exactly what San Antonio has done since Game 1, when the Rockets ran the Spurs out of the AT&T Center. Gregg Popovich, the legendary coach whose Spurs have been a playoff roadblock for D’Antoni since his “Seven Seconds or Less” days with the Phoenix Suns, harped on San Antonio’s terrible transition defense after the first game of the series. The Spurs have responded by slamming the brakes on the Rockets’ running game since.
Houston had 27 fast-break points in Game 1, when MVP candidate James Harden pushed the pace and picked the Spurs apart for 14 assists, some of which didn’t even require him to cross the half-court line. The Spurs sliced that fast-break total to less than half in Game 2, holding Houston to 13 points. The Rockets managed a measly nine transition points in Game 3.
“It becomes a slugfest,” D’Antoni said, punctuating the thought with a long pause while shaking his head.
Harden rebounded from a 3 of 17 stinker in Game 2, the worst postseason shooting performance of his career, to put up 43 points on 14 of 28 shooting Friday night. But Houston relied far too heavily on Harden’s scoring, looking more like the .500 Rockets from last season than this year’s fun, 55-win team.
Harden, who led the league in assists during his debut season as a point guard, dished out only five dimes in Friday’s loss. That’s a huge problem for Houston, which is 3-7 when Harden records seven or fewer assists, including the playoffs.
Houston had only three players score in double figures in Game 3. Power forward Ryan Anderson and reserve guards Gordon and Lou Williams -- the trio of sweet-shooting scorers acquired by general manager Daryl Morey since the end of last season to complement Harden -- combined for a grand total of 11 points on 3 of 18 shooting.
“We've just got to play better,” Harden said. “I think we played hard tonight. Offensively, we've just got to get guys involved. Guys just have to have confidence and knock down these shots and be aggressive.”
That’s easier said than done against the Spurs, the league’s top-ranked defensive team this season. San Antonio can smother teams in the half court with a couple of dominant defenders at wing (Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green) and long-armed shot-blockers inside.
At one point in the first quarter, the Rockets missed 2-point attempts outside of the paint on three straight possessions, which must have made MIT alum Morey sick to his stomach. Those are the exact kind of shots that analytics discourage, and the Rockets are the poster franchise for feasting on 3s and finishing around the rim. If those are the looks Houston is settling for, you know the Rockets are completely out of sync.
“We’ve got to drive it,” D’Antoni said, crediting the Spurs for running the Rockets off the 3-point line. “We’ve got to make an extra pass. We’ve got to get it to the next guy. We’ve got to move the ball a little bit better. It’s been easy all year. The first shot’s there; now it might be like the third pass, and we’ve got to do a better job moving it.”
More than anything, the Rockets need to get running again -- putting the ball in Harden’s hands with shooters surrounding him, while the Spurs scramble to match up. But that requires the Rockets to get stops and rebounds, both of which have been issues in the Spurs’ wins during this series, as San Antonio has been patient offensively and pounded the glass. The Spurs have shot 50 percent from the floor and outrebounded the Rockets by 25 over the past two games.
“It sounds kind of counterintuitive, but it’s not really about defense,” Popovich said when asked about the key to slowing the Rockets’ transition offense. “It’s really about offense. Bad offense leads to transition.
"If you’re making shots, if you’re shooting free throws, there’s not a whole lot of transition you have to worry about.”