by Mark Deeks
(2) San Antonio Spurs @ (3) Houston Rockets (San Antonio leads 3-2)
In by far the closest game of a series with three lopsided losses in it already, the Spurs prevailed in overtime, 110-107, to take the pivotal game five. Houston now has to win two in a row, one on the road, if they are to make the Conference Finals.
As was the case previously, before, the Spurs will miss heady veteran Tony Parker, while the Rockets will be without heady veteran Nene. Both are out for good no matter how long this series goes on. Additionally, Kawhi Leonard sat out the overtime period of game five after tweaking his ankle, which didn’t help on top of a slight knee issue he was already suffering. He is officially listed as “probable” for game six, despite saying himself he will definitely play, but he might be hobbled somewhat, just as he appeared to be in game five with his 8-21 shooting line and seemingly restricted movement. Outside of these injuries, however, both teams should be at full strength.
In the preview for the previous game of this series, I advised that in light of his very empty playoffs thus far, picking Manu Ginobili would be an “optimistic” pick. Well, it pays to be optimistic. Ginobili let loose all the reserves of energy that years of selectively reducing his minutes per game and skipping back to backs were designed to give him – recording 12 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists on the night, he also had a block, the block, to seal the win. Manu was preserved in oil precisely for moments like this – with vintage drives to the basket, punctuated by an off-hand dunk, Ginobili’s performance looked like the Ginobili of old. It is still there, in spurts, and only one more spurt is required to win this series while undermanned.
Part of Manu’s minutes came as a de facto point guard. The experiment of giving spot starts to rookie Dejounte Murray is over, and long time backup Patty Mills is getting more minutes than ever before. Mills played 43 minutes, tying his career high, and returned 20 points, 4 assist and one turnover on 16 shots. Mills remains a must-pick, and while Danny Green alongside him is occasionally having decent nights in the stats column after two down year (16 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in game five), it is Mills and Manu who represent the playmaking threats from the guard spots, alongside the all-around game of Leonard.
As a cheaper version of Green, Jonathan Simmons has been the other main beneficiary of the minutes availed by Parker’s absence. Simmons played 32 minutes in game five, his highest of the series, yet he has averaged 22 minutes per game over the series as a whole after totalling only 55 in the six game first round series against the Grizzlies. Simmons’s three point shot is not his strong suit, hitting only 5-17 from three in the series thus far and not exactly taking contested ones, yet his defense against the Rockets’ endless small ball attack (six steals), his transition play and movement off the ball (a 12.2 ppg scoring average in the series despite not spotting up well) and rebounding assistance (twelve boards thus far) make him a very good value role player. As rotations have tightened, his minutes have gone up, and the minutes he was getting before were not merely blow-out minutes.
Sam Dekker did not play for the Rockets, who instead used only a seven man rotation. Eric Gordon did start, as predicted, and Ryan Anderson moved to the bench to play both behind and alongside Clint Capela. However, Gordon did not have a huge impact on the game, scoring only 11 points on 13 shots (1-6 from three) in 44 minutes. The six rebounds and three assists helped, but were not what he was there for. Lou Williams similarly struggled, scoring only six points with four assists in 26 minutes off the bench, shooting 3-10 from the field and missing all five of his three point attempts. Gordon and Williams will get these opportunities again because this is precisely why they were targeted and acquired; to form a three point barrage in a high tempo offense flanking the unquenchable James Harden (who still recorded a 30+ point triple double despite looking fatigued). Shooters have off nights. Houston cannot afford them both to have another one.
On the plus side, for all the focus here on the guards on either side, Clint Capela had a typically Capela-esque game. He recorded 9 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks in game five, and his presence as a deterrent was a large part of why LaMarcus Aldridge (7-21 shooting) continues to be such a relative non-factor in the series. Aldridge stays away from Capela, while Capela attacks the glass and anyone around him, recording remarkably consistent stat lines and averaging 12.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game on the series. Aldridge might have a 35 or 40 point game in him in a way that Capela never will, and that is reflected in his price. But for his cost, Capela will almost certainly return a very solid night up front.