May 11, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Jonathon Simmons (17) dribbles the ball during the third quarter against the Houston Rockets in game six of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
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The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday night to win the series. What can the team take away from this performance heading to the Western Conference Finals?
Leonard was a game-time decision Thursday night and the Spurs ultimately decided they would risk losing Game 6 to give him rest so he’d be closer to 100 percent for either a Game 7, or best-case, a Game 1. The move paid off, as Leonard will now go into Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on four days rest.
So how did Gregg Popovich pull this off? How does one go from being blown out in Game 1 at home, to winning Game 6 and the series on the road without your best player? It’s not just the “next man up” mentality the Spurs have always possessed, but it’s also not going away from the game plan.
Two Big System
Popovich utilized lineups with two big men for a good chunk of this series. In Game 1, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and David Lee combined for 74 minutes, despite the Rockets getting exactly what they wanted on offense. We saw this number shrink over the next five games, as Lee didn’t play more than 20 minutes in any contest. But there were still a number of Aldridge-Gasol lineups used throughout the series.
Eventually the team found a defensive scheme that worked out for these lineups. They limited kick-out options to three-point shooters, and used the length of their big men to defend the rim. Finding a way to keep these two on the floor throughout the series was a huge benefit for Game 6.
Their size in the post affected Harden throughout the night, and they led the offense on the other end. Aldridge had a monster game, going for 34 points on 16-of-26 shooting along with 12 rebounds. Without Kawhi, Aldridge had to be the go-to scorer this game, and Pop’s trust in him to find his rhythm throughout the series made that possible.
Gasol’s game was just as important even with just 10 points. He had 11 rebounds, five assists and three blocks giving the team what it needed on both ends. With his playmaking and Aldridge’s scoring, the team was able to run an effective offense through the post, which made up for not having Kawhi.
The only time we saw the Spurs get creative with their adjustments was between Games 1 and 2. This is when they started putting a guard on Ryan Anderson, to limit the effectiveness of pick-and-pops against Aldridge. They stuck with this change throughout the series, which slowed the Rockets’ offense down to a point.
Other than that, the only thing they changed was allowing the Rockets to use more of the paint. Harden often had free rein anywhere inside the three-point line, but no one to kick it out to. Even after another blow out loss in Game 4, the Spurs didn’t panic. They stuck to what they figured would work, the players bought in, and it paid off in Games 5 and 6.
Game 6 was probably the best the Spurs looked defensively all series. Their rotations and closeouts were by far the quickest and most confident of the series. In Game 1 they never fully committed to the rotation for fear of leaving someone open. By Game 6 they were anticipating the Rockets’ moves, and had trust their teammate would fill their spot. The Rockets shot below 30 percent from the field Thursday night, thanks in large part to the efforts on defense.
Next Man Up
I know I said it wasn’t just about the next man up mentality this team has, but that’s still a pretty big reason for their victory. A number of guys stepped up last night in Kawhi’s absence. Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson both came off the bench to help with ball handling duties, and were effective defensively. But no one stood out more than Jonathon Simmons.
Simmons got the start for Leonard and immediately made an impact. His defense forced many of Harden’s turnovers throughout the first quarter, which set the tone for all parties the rest of the way. Simmons quickly started running some offense, to the point that he was basically the point guard. He got the ball moving early in the shot clock, and directed the offense down to the post. He added a playoff career-high 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, looking confident with his jumper.
If you haven’t paid close attention to the Spurs the last two years, you may not have known Simmons before last night. No one should be able to say that after his next big game.
San Antonio had faith in all of their guys and the game plan and stuck with it till the end. Now they are reaping the benefits and are on their way to play the Golden State Warriors. Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals will be Sunday, May 14.