The void left behind by Tony Parker, lost for the playoffs to a knee injury sustained in Game 2
, was never going to be filled by one player. It would take multiple Spurs stepping up and a concerted team effort for them to win on the road and regain home-court advantage.
That’s precisely what happened last night in Houston as they convincingly took Game 3, 103-92.
It began with a defensive focus that turned James Harden from offensive maestro into a frazzled one-man show. The Rockets guard had a game-high 43 points but only five assists, and as many turnovers. Usually the beneficiary of whistles, he was slapped with a technical foul midway through the fourth quarter, the collective result of several protestations directed at the refs.
By consistently taking away Harden’s passing lanes, the Spurs defense found itself scrambling less while limiting the Rockets’ supporting cast of Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams. Instead they funneled Harden into the paint to be met by either LaMarcus Aldridge or Pau Gasol, allowing a few floaters and layups to go in but preventing him from making his usual reads to open shooters on the perimeter. The goal: sacrifice those moderately contested two-point looks instead of opening themselves up to a barrage of threes.
Pop’s decision to start Gasol over Lee continues to look like a smart one, as well. In a game of inches, Gasol’s superior length has been a difference-maker.
And then there’s the impact a re-invigorated Aldridge made. It wasn’t just the 26 points – the most he’s scored in these playoffs – but the renewed confidence that was encouraging to see. Maybe it has something to do with feeling like a focal point of the offense again; maybe not. Either way, with Parker gone, this is the version of Aldridge the Spurs will need – the kind that battles for position on every play and makes teams like Houston pay when they put smaller defenders on him.
The role players also stepped up in Game 3, which is huge for any road playoff game. After averaging 7 points through the series’ first two games, Patty Mills dropped 15, taking on a larger workload with Parker gone. Danny Green scored in double digits for the second game in a row, hitting four of his six shots and coming up with a handful of timely defensive plays. Houston native Jonathon Simmons chipped in once again, beating the buzzer with a three-pointer at the end of the third quarter to quell a 9-1 Rockets run. Even rookie Dejounte Murray, who got the surprise start at point guard, had a positive impact in his 14 minutes on the floor.
When the ball moves well, everyone looks better. The Spurs had 23 assists on their 39 made baskets, a terrific number given they were without their starting point guard. Credit the ever-evolving Kawhi Leonard, as the forward stepped into a greater facilitator role, leading the Spurs with seven assists to go with his customary 26 point and 10 rebounds.
The Rockets will bounce back, because they have to. They’ll look for new ways to deploy Harden and hope that more of the misses from the last two games become makes. For now, though, the Spurs appear to have something of a blueprint for success, and that bodes well for their chances of returning to San Antonio with (what once seemed) an unlikely 3-1 series lead.
Game 4 will be on Sunday at 8pm.