- The Spurs vanquished the Rockets sans Kawhi Leonard. His availability will be—obviously—crucial against the Warriors. As will LaMarcus Aldridge's efforts against the Death Lineup.
The San Antonio Spurs put on a basketball clinic Thursday night, dismantling the Houston Rockets piece by piece en route to a shocking 114–75 Game 6 win, a victory that propels the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals. And what’s San Antonio’s reward for its incredible victory, which came sans Kawhi Leonard? A matchup with the NBA’s supervillains, the Golden State Warriors.
Let’s start with Thursday. WOOF. The Rockets looked absolutely listless from the opening tip in a do-or-die matchup. Houston’s performance was pitiful. There’s no excuse for the lack of energy the Rockets showed with their season on the line. Houston played as if a win was a foregone conclusion once it was announced Leonard would be out with an ankle injury. Instead, James Harden played the worst game of his career, and the Spurs played with an energy and focus that made them a formidable opponent with or without their MVP candidate.
It would have been one thing to lose a close game. Losing by 39 at home with Dejounte Murray outscoring Harden? Pitiful. The Rockets never made the game close, eschewing the usual second-half run one would expect from a home team fighting for its life. Mike D’Antoni and Harden will now have to answer the questions that have dogged them their entire careers this offseason, despite a year that was a rollicking success until the final 48 minutes.
The Spurs, despite showing some flaws so far in the playoffs, were still the second-best team in the NBA during the regular season. And now, Gregg Popovich will have a chance to add to his remarkable legacy by trying to stop the Warriors from making their third straight Finals.
At first blush, San Antonio’s chances look bleak. Pau Gasol and David Lee had awful defensive moments against the Rockets. I don’t know how long either will be playable against Golden State. Popovich has been reluctant all year to play one-big lineups, and he only utilized them against Houston when he was backed into a corner. Will Pop be willing to play small against the Warriors, even if that means succumbing to their pace?
It’s hard to take away much from the teams’ meetings during the regular season. San Antonio won two of the three contests, though one of those was the infamous DNP-rest-everyone important game. Golden State won the most recent meeting, and that win came without Kevin Durant.
The Spurs did manage to blow out the Warriors on opening night. Obviously, much has changed since then, but two things happened that night that could help San Antonio in the next round, and those were big games from LaMarcus Aldridge and Jonathon Simmons.
Aldridge has looked over the hill for much of these playoffs. He broke out in a big way Thursday, stepping up in the place of Leonard to cook the Rockets’ bigs for 34 points on 16-of-26 shooting. Aldridge had 26 in that opening night win over the Dubs, and he makes the Spurs a much more dangerous team when he’s playing at an elite level. If Aldridge is the only big when the Spurs are matched up with the Death Lineup, he can change the equation of the game if he can score consistently in the post, a task much easier said than done, especially when Aldridge will likely be matched up against Draymond Green.
Simmons is a little bit more of a Basketball Twitter fascination than a reliable force, but his athleticism on the wing is a trait San Antonio largely lacks outside of Leonard. When Simmons is playing well, the Spurs have yet another tenacious defender on the wing, as well as someone who can run out in transition and scrap for buckets off the bounce. If Simmons continues playing up to his potential, Popovich could be more easily convinced to play small, and the Spurs could be better suited to actually running with the Warriors.
Of course, the Spurs will have no chance if Leonard isn’t healthy. He’ll be needed more than ever for San Antonio to have a chance at upsetting Golden State. Thursday night notwithstanding, Leonard has become the fulcrum of the Spurs’ offense, and he’ll also be called upon to slow, if not shut down, at least one of the Warriors superstars every night.
One thing we can expect during the West Finals for sure? The Warriors will put up a much better effort than the Rockets did in Game 6. San Antonio will enter the matchup as a heavy underdog, and by the end of the series, we will find out exactly how big the gap is between the NBA’s two best teams.