Enter 36-year-old Pau Gasol, making his first start of the postseason in what was essentially a must-win for the silver and black.
Pop’s decision to play Gasol over David Lee didn’t appear the most obvious remedy for the Spurs’ woes—but it worked. The Spaniard’s length gave San Antonio better rim protection against Houston’s dribble-drive game, and he made up for a sub-par shooting night (3-of-9 from the field) by pulling down 13 rebounds and blocking four shots. He was a monster in the paint and, along with LaMarcus Aldridge, did a great job keeping the Rockets off the offensive glass.
It wasn’t the only adjustment Pop made. He also committed Kawhi Leonard to locking down James Harden, resulting in one of Harden’s worst games of the season. Leonard was spectacular in not only limiting the Rockets point guard but refraining from committing a single foul on a player who makes a living getting to the free-throw line.
That Leonard was then able to complement his defensive effort with one of the most impressive offensive performances of the playoffs (34 points on 13-of-16 shooting and eight assists) is why Gregg Popovich considers him the best basketball player in the world.
Then there was the inspired decision to mirror the Rockets’ ‘small ball’ lineups. For nearly half the game, the Spurs had just one traditional big man on the floor instead of two, with guys like Leonard and Jonathon Simmons playing significant minutes as the de facto power forward. Going ‘small’ allowed the Spurs to switch on defense more liberally and push the pace themselves. Among the many surprising statistics from Game 2 was their advantage in fast-break points, 20 to 13.
San Antonio also reverted to a strategy that had been successful against Memphis: playing Tony Parker and Patty Mills together.
It’s likely the Spurs’ improved focus made all of those decisions seem even smarter. They turned the ball over just seven times, outrebounded the Rockets and hit way more open shots than in Game 1. Simply put: they were the better team last night in nearly every way.
As encouraging as the 121-96 win was, such emotions couldn’t be seen on the faces of Spurs players as the final buzzer sounded. With less than nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, Tony Parker went down without making contact with another player, clutching his left leg in pain. Unable to put weight on it, the 34-year-old would eventually be carried off the court by teammates Dejounte Murray and Dewayne Dedmon and remained in the locker room for the rest of the game.
“It’s not good,” Popovich said, when asked about his point guard afterwards.
Parker is scheduled to receive an MRI later today, but the nature of injury – and Pop’s words – don’t bode well for him to be return to action any time soon. It makes the victory more bitter than sweet, and leaves the Spurs looking for more answers, right when they seemed to have a few things figured out.
Game 3 will be in Houston on Friday night.