HOUSTON — How a playoff series evolves can be owed as much to circumstance as to tactics. In a perfect world, the postseason is a chess board. Coaches are constantly repositioning their best players and attempting to hide their vulnerable ones. But rooks don’t get rattled. A queen never tweaks her knee. The theory is nice. The reality is that even the most well-crafted plans—those made from a nuanced understanding of what every player on the floor does best—are subject to a series’ unavoidable humanity.
In the first half of Game 4, a groin strain on an otherwise routine play reshaped the Rockets' entire rotation. Nene left both the game and the arena early to undergo an MRI on a pulled groin, the results of which have yet to be announced. The repercussions, however, have already been felt; Eric Gordon, Houston's sharpshooting sixth man, joined the starting lineup for the second half as a matter of restructuring. Nene, too, was a backup. But aside from Clint Capela, the next most reliable center option in Nene's absence was starting power forward Ryan Anderson, whose move to the bench made the starters even smaller and the reserves even more widely spaced than usual.
"We just couldn't play both of them," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "And I kinda like Ryan at the five, so the decision made itself."
Perhaps so. But the decision that made itself eventually nudged Gregg Popovich into playing smaller lineups than he seems comfortable. The Spurs, in part due to their personnel, have zagged with taller, power-posting lineups in the face of a zigging, transition league. Those interior threats had their chance in Game 5, but were drowned out by the Rockets' shooting. "We've been saying all year long that adversity's gonna hit," James Harden said. "Y'know? It's how you respond from it."
Even before shifting smaller, the drive-and-kick rhythm of Houston's offense had returned. The tradeoff overwhelmed. LaMarcus Aldridge would back down and earn a tough basket over some smaller, scrappy defender only to watch the Rockets run back the other way and work smoothly into an open three-pointer. The result: A 125-104 victory for the Rockets to even the series at 2–2.
"What was going through my mind was going three, two, three, two," D'Antoni said. "Y'know? I kinda like the math." Gordon, who has shot with astounding confidence all season, made six threes on nine attempts. Overall, Houston cashed in on 19 of its 43 long-range tries.
Popovich had made up ground for the Spurs in this series by counterintuitively leaning on bigs like Pau Gasol, whose slow foot speed seemed an awful match for the fast-breaking Rockets. San Antonio structured its defense to allow Gasol to hang back closer to the rim—baiting Houston to take the mid-range shots it avoids by design—and banked on his offensive rebounding. That can work to a point, but a strong wing like Harden can better contest Gasol or Aldridge's twos than either big can deter the Rockets' threes. That is a tension fundamental to the series as a whole, but one brought to bear specifically by Nene's absence. Houston went smaller only because it was effectively forced to.
"You've really gotta hold your breath a little bit because we have to play that way," D'Antoni said. "That's how we play and it's not a safe way to go, but you've gotta exploit what you have. That's the team we have."
Anderson showed the Rockets they can survive in this series while going even smaller. "We might be planning to see that lineup a lot more," Harden said. "We've gotta do a really good job. We've gotta watch the film, see how can we be better defensively. And offensively, the floor is obviously spaced so our offense is gonna be good. Defensively is the key. If we can get that contained, we give ourself a chance."
At the same time, this adjustment-through-contingency only worked out in the Rockets' favor because Harden was able to drive the offense. His role is no revelation; every game Houston plays illustrates just how vital Harden's creation is. Yet this was the first game in this series in which Harden played unburdened. You may have noticed Harden ease into a possession that otherwise would have began with a sprint. Periodically, he has passed out of advantageous matchups he would typically be fiending to attack. San Antonio had managed to make Harden uncomfortable, but some of the waxing and waning in his effort level could be drawn back to a chest cold. "I can finally breathe," Harden said.
The Rockets' offense could, too. So much in this series changes when Harden feels like himself. And so much could have been lost when he bumped knees with Patty Mills on a drive in the third quarter—the very kind of collision that has torn tendons and set deep, painful bruises. The chess board nearly flipped over. Fortunately, Harden was able to walk off the pain and return to put the Spurs away, albeit while hitting standstill threes and making more conservative drives. That looks good in a runaway win, but there may be a human impact to his ailing knee yet.
Playoff series have turned on smaller things. This game in particular fell in the shadow of a larger one. While preparing for Game 4, Patrick Beverley was informed that his grandfather, Rheese Morris, had passed away. Beverley is the acknowledged soul of the Rockets—a player whose fire and verve juices the play of the entire team. Beverley hit his first shot of the night. In the space where he would normally bounce and celebrate, his face instead filled—for a brief moment—with sorrow. Beverley's chattering was muted. Some of his antics were held back. But Houston's starting point guard played through to score 10 points and notch a playoff career-high six assists in a win where the Rockets were 27 points better than the Spurs with him on the floor.
After evening the series, Beverley reflected on how his gameday unfolded and how he's coping with immediate grief:
There is space in all this for the clipboard and the stat sheet. Basketball is a puzzle yearning to be understood, and all that any of us do—from the most casual fan to the lifers in the game—is endeavor to make sense of it. Coiled in that logic are real, glimmering humans. A carefully schemed pick-and-roll rides the wave of a brilliant mind. A player's body fails him at an inopportune time. An emotional leader is made to deal with unresolvable heartache when he wants only to focus. This is a game of blood and work because basketball is life and may we never forget it.