A little more than four minutes into his team’s Western Conference Semifinal series against the Rockets, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was already grasping at straws. He trailed 15-6, had just called his second timeout so he could yell at David Lee for a second time after Danny Green had already been benched. Down by 12 points four minutes later, he turned to the little-used Latvian rookie Davis Bertans. That didn’t work either. In the Rockets 126-99 game one win at the AT&T Center, nothing the hall of fame coach did seemed to work, and it could be a sign of what’s to come.
Not to sound cliché, but the game wasn’t as close as the final score might indicate. The Rockets led by double-digits for the game’s final 37 minutes, leading by 30 at halftime, and as many as 39 before the game ended. In the minutes that mattered, the Rockets did whatever they wanted.
“We lost and they won, and they played better,” Popovich said bluntly. “I thought they played well in every facet of the game.”
For five games against Oklahoma City, the Rockets struggled. Sure, they advanced, but it wasn’t pretty. They had trouble getting their shots, and when they actually did, they couldn’t make them. After a game one blowout in that series, the Rockets seemingly spent more time chasing the Thunder than being chased, and while the Rockets played about as well as they can play Monday, and the Spurs will certainly play better in game two Wednesday night, the logical question after the game one thrashing is can San Antonio matchup in this series?
The Spurs are a better team than the one the Rockets dispatched last week, but it doesn’t mean they’re a tougher matchup. Sure, Oklahoma City is easier to defend, but on the other end of the floor their athleticism bothered Harden and his teammates. Aside from Kawhi Leonard and Dewayne Dedmon, San Antonio can’t match that, and it can’t even come close.
Harden and company attacked Spurs’ brick-footed bigs all night, and there was nothing Popovich could do about it. Coming in to the game you figured Lee, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol would at least make the smaller Rockets pay on the other end of the floor, but that didn’t happen. The three former all stars combined for 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting. In turn, the Spurs turned to quick jumpers, and for his team, that’s the last way to beat the Rockets. The game was played at a 105.36 possession pace, faster than what the Rockets played in the regular season, and a lot faster than the 88.16 possession pace the Spurs played in the first round.
“If we are going to shoot quickly and poorly, it’s going to be a fast break deal all night long, and they’re better at that than we are,” he said.
So what now for Popovich? He’s got less than two days to fix what happened Monday otherwise he risks the possibility of Wednesday night’s game being the final time his team plays at home all season, but I’m not sure he has a lot of options.
Obviously, he needs Aldridge to give him more than four points and six rebounds on seven shots, and the Spurs will have to shoot better than 37 percent from the field and 31 percent from behind the 3-point line, but he will probably have to scrap Lee from his starting lineup. Dedmon started most of the second half of the season for the Spurs, only to play a total of 43 minutes in the last round, partly due to illness. He gives the Spurs a defensive presence that will at least kind of imitate what Steven Adams did to the Rockets in the last round, but there’s a trade-off, as there is with giving Jonathan Simmons more minutes in place of Green or Manu Ginobli. Now, a team you thought could be tough to defend now has a couple of guys on the floor you can just ignore.
Popovich can elect to go small, but that goes against what he’s done all year, and it plays right into the Rockets hands. They will gladly sign-up for a track meet.
That’s the problem the Spurs’ coach faces. His team played a certain way all season and it worked to the tune of a 61-21 regular season record, now all the sudden his team’s style might be its biggest flaw. There’s a lot of series left to be played, but if the first game showed us anything its by the time it ends, Gregg Popovich may run out of straws to grasp at.