The Houston Rockets bounced back with a comfortable win over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4. What are the key takeaways from the win?
Down 2-1 in the series and facing what was essentially a must-win game, the Houston Rockets came out firing on all cylinders offensively, comfortably defeating the San Antonio Spurs 125-104 in Game 4 of their second round series.
Before the game the Rockets talked a lot about increasing the pace and insisted that in Games 2 and 3 they just missed open shots, resulting in relatively poor offensive showings.
Well, well, well. It’s clear the Rockets were right about those two factors, as they adjusted and successfully achieved both in the comfortable win. With that being said, let’s take a look at three key takeaways from the crucial Game 4.
1. Playing at a fast pace is a must
In order for the Rockets to win this series, they must play at their pace the majority of the time and hit their open shots. In Games 2 and 3 the Spurs were able to get comfortable and slow the pace down to a halfcourt battle. It isn’t a coincidence that in the two games the Rockets have won in this series the pace has been played at their liking.
Now it isn’t always easy to play at the fast pace Houston likes. If the Spurs are hitting a lot of their shots, that increases the time for them to get back defensively and prepare for the Rockets’ attack.
However, the Rockets must be determined to run at all times, including after Spurs makes. By increasing the pace, you don’t allow San Antonio to get comfortable defensively, which increases the chances of getting a mismatch or confusion.
In Game 4 the Rockets ran in almost every opportunity, which led to good looks for James Harden at the rim or shooters on the perimeter after he sucked the defense in. Houston generated quality look after quality look in Game 4, twisting and turning the Spurs’ defense around until the ball went in the net.
Finally, the Spurs aren’t comfortable (or equipped) to play at a fast pace for long stretches of games, while the Rockets enjoy playing in transition and at a fast rate. Houston can force San Antonio in to uncomfortable stretches of games by continuing to run and push the ball.
2. Explore different (small) lineups
In Game 4, Nene went down with an injury in the first quarter that sidelined him for the rest of the game while Clint Capela was in foul trouble in the first half. This forced Mike D’Antoni to go with Ryan Anderson at center for a long stretch.
Numerous analysts and fans were calling for such a lineup adjustment with the Spurs having a big sticking to the paint and defending the rim, making drives harder for Houston. However, D’Antoni didn’t make the adjustment, and it remains to be seen whether or not he would have had Nene stayed healthy.
Regardless, the lineup worked relatively well for the Rockets. Anderson forced San Antonio to have a big on the perimeter, opening the lane for drives from Houston’s guards.
Perhaps more importantly, the Rockets weren’t killed on the boards when playing the small lineup. For the game the Spurs had just two more rebounds than the Rockets (43-41), and although Pau Gasol had success on the offensive glass against Anderson, the Rockets kept pace with San Antonio due to the spread out offensive attack they unleashed on the Spurs.
In the third quarter, the Rockets’ lineup with Anderson at center was a +1, and the team hit eight three-pointers in that quarter. It’s always a risk to go that small against a team that usually plays big, but so far it is paying off for Houston.
Sam Dekker received some playing time with this small unit, and his athleticism could give the Spurs’ bigs trouble if they don’t play small (which they usually don’t like to do). Dekker had five rebounds (including two offensive rebounds), and averaged 7.2 rebounds per game per 36 minutes during the regular season.
By increasing the pace and going small to spread the floor offensively, the Rockets can continue to throw the Spurs off defensively, which will be crucial to winning the series.
3. Attack San Antonio bigs
In Games 2 and 3, the Rockets didn’t make enough attempts to isolate bigs on James Harden (or players like Lou Williams and Eric Gordon). With the Spurs playing two traditional bigs, the Rockets have ample opportunities through screening to get one of them on the ball-handler, which is essentially a death sentence for the defender.
However, in Game 4 the Rockets attacked the Spurs’ bigs by screening numerous times to get a mismatch for Harden. And unlike in Game 3, Harden was more decisive in attacking the bigs and getting to the rim, leading to a layup or pass for an open three-pointer.
Of course, Harden is also able to make big men look silly when he wants to, which happened to poor LaMarcus Aldridge in Game 4:
Attacking the Spurs two bigs on the floor provides the Rockets with numerous scoring options in a given possession. If you couple that with an increased pace and more floor-spacing, you have the recipe for an offensive explosion for Houston.
With the series now going back to San Antonio all tied up at two games a piece, Game 5 has become crucial in deciding who will eventually win the series. If the Rockets continue to play at a fast pace, throw different (small) lineups at the Spurs, and attack the big men defensively, they have a great shot of pulling the game and series out.