• The Rockets love shooting threes, but the James Harden and Co. could be straying too far from what made them successful during the regular season.
By Rohan Nadkarni
May 10, 2017

The end of Game 5 between the Spurs and the Rockets—a 110–107 San Antonio win that gave the Spurs a 3–2 lead in the series—was both thrilling and infuriating. On one hand, it was the first truly close game of the series, with the pressure (and our fun!) on each successive shot in the fourth quarter growing exponentially. On the other hand, both teams made plenty of plays that could have gift wrapped a win for their opponent, only for another mistake to follow. The result was the Spurs pulling out a win they probably didn’t deserve, doing so without Tony Parker and without Kawhi Leonard down the stretch. Now, the series shifts back to Houston, where the Rockets will have to regain their offensive identity to force a Game 7.

First, the frustrating finish. The Rockets, particularly James Harden, looked absolutely gassed down the stretch. Harden settled for far too many pull-up threes in the fourth quarter and overtime, and he too often sat on the ball until late in the shot clock, forcing even more bad decisions. With Houston clinging to a small lead for much of the second half, it made no sense for Harden to slow down the offense as much as he did. (Harden’s nine turnovers didn’t help matters either.)

Houston launched 48 threes, and made a respectable 16, but guys like Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams also missed a healthy amount of clean looks, and a couple of makes could have been the difference in a tight game. The Rockets also lost a bunch of opportunities to run out in transition because of frequently hilarious struggles rebounding the basketball.

The Spurs won, but not without their own issues. Patty Mills somehow failed to get off a potential game-winning shot at the end of the fourth quarter, holding onto the ball and firing after time had expired despite having some space at the top of the key. The Spurs didn’t shoot well from the field, and their offensive rebounding masked what was another rough game for their bigs. Pau Gasol’s most memorable moment on the court was getting chewed out by Gregg Popovich for not executing correctly on Mills’s ill-fated game-winner attempt. And it is growing increasingly sad watching LaMarcus Aldridge fail to capitalize on numerous opportunities in the post against the likes of Gordon, Harden and Ryan Anderson.

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By overtime, both teams looked spent. The Spurs kept missing shots. The Rockets couldn’t rebound the ball. Ultimately, Houston’s failure to properly initiate its offense opened the door for San Antonio to steal a win. The Spurs seemed to have no business taking this game, especially with Leonard unable to play during the game’s most important minutes due to an apparent ankle injury. Manu Ginobili had a major impact however, with 12 points and a game-sealing block on Harden.

Though Mike D’Antoni likes the math of the Rockets shooting threes while the Spurs get what they want inside, it’s Houston that needs to re-discover what made it successful during the regular season. The Rockets aren’t finding any easy points against the Spurs, and that’s an issue when random bounces don’t go your way and the open threes aren’t falling as they should.

Consider: A whopping 44% of the Rockets points are coming from threes against the Spurs. During the regular season, Houston scored only 37.5% of its points from three. San Antonio is choking off the paint and resisting fouls, which is hurting the Rockets’ offense. Houston is getting less and less of its points down low or at the line, and that’s leading to big swings game to game as Houston grows close to becoming over-reliant on threes. It’s not a bad strategy over the course of a series, especially with the Rockets going even smaller in the absence of Nene. But in individual games, on individual possessions, Houston can’t simply be content always letting it fly from the outside.

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A larger rotation could benefit Houston as well. Is Montrezl Harrell really unplayable? Can’t Sam Dekker play for a few minutes? Harden especially looked fatigued as he barely drove the ball late in the game, though it’s at least understandable for him to be tired considering the offensive burden he carried while being chased by Kawhi for most of the game.

The Spurs pulled out an incredibly gutsy win Tuesday. The Rockets, who held a five point lead with under two-and-a-half minutes to go in the fourth, will be kicking themselves for letting Game 5 get away and blowing an opportunity to close out at home. This series can still very much go either way. But the next adjustment will be on Houston and D’Antoni, who needs to get his team back to picking up easy points inside.