HOUSTON — For a Spurs franchise that has a whole wide world of experience, this might as well have been drifting ashore on an undiscovered island
None of them had ever been in a place like this, taking the court for a playoff game without Tony Parker as their point guard.
“It’s a little bit strange, a little sad too,” Manu Ginobili had said at the morning shootaround. “We have no precedent.”
Somebody always has to plant the first flag to claim new ground.
Now the Spurs know how to bang two rocks together to create a spark and can try to use that knowledge to build a bigger fire.
This 103-92 win over the Rockets at Toyota Center Friday night was about changing personnel and changing plans on the fly.
But it was also about burying the emotional blow they’d been dealt when Parker suffered a ruptured left quadriceps tendon in Game 2 long enough to take care of business.
LaMarcus Aldridge took care of business following a first two tentative games of the series that whispers starting to circulate about his championship fiber. A toothpick of a rookie named Dejounte Murray took care of business by refusing to melt in the face of Patrick Beverley’s white hot defensive pressure and did survive his baptism by fire. Jonathon Simmons, a second year refugee from the NBA D-League, took care of business by coming back to his hometown and knocking bodies around, knocking down big shots.
“Obviously, they responded well,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Better than anybody had a right to expect after having their offensive leader and pace-setter for the past 16 years ripped from the heart of their lineup.
This was a night when the Rockets had a chance to step down on the necks of wounded San Antonio and put a chokehold on the series in Game 3 introducing doubt. Only now it has to be James Harden and the rest of the 3-balling, freewheeling Rockets that have to be wondering about themselves after the second straight game of being held under 100 points.
“For the most part, defense is always the key,” said center Pau Gasol. “When you’re solid and disciplined defensively, you get stops, you get boards, you put yourself in a good position.”
For the second straight game, the Spurs closed out hard on the Rockets’ 3-point shooters and didn’t let them burn the house down. When the Rockets did take the ball toward the hoop, they couldn’t get all the way in for layups and dunks and instead put up lazy, errant floaters.
These were Spurs with their heads completely in the game and their minds fully engaged in the plan even at a time when they had to still be reeling from the devastating news about Parker.
“It’s hard,” Gasol admited. “But at the same you’ve got to work through and get over adversity. We understand how much Tony means to this team, what he brings to the table and how well he was playing for us in the playoffs, making huge plays at critical points in critical games. He will be missed on the floor and off the floor, because he’s an emotional leader for this team. He brings a lot of poise, a lot of leadership.
“But an injury occurred and now you have to move on. You have to play with the guys that you have and you have to compete and you have to bring it. All the guys that have an opportunity to play have to step up and get the job done. That’s just the nature of this business. So tonight we did that and we didn’t allow the emotional hit of the injury of Tony to affect us in a negative way.”
It helped that the Spurs played 19 games during the regular season without Parker as he struggled through a string of minor injuries and posted a stellar 15-4 record. It helped that the rookie Murray had gotten some playing time in those absences, but he was sidelined in early March with a groin injury.
Beverley tried to sink his teeth into Murray right from the start, roughing him up the first few times down the floor.
“It was a good initiation in big game like this, to get out there and get some time, and he did the best he could,” said Popovich.
They all did. Gasol played a high-low passing game with Aldridge over the top of the Houston defense for layups in the post. Aldridge, for the first time in the series, looked like the clutch time workhorse the Spurs wanted when they signed him to the $84-million free agent two summers ago. Simmons hit a big 3-pointer to close out the third quarter and dropped in a nifty pull-up in the fourth quarter to let his team exhale.
Kawhi Leonard, who was lost all season long in the noise created by Harden and Russell Westbrook, simply did grind out another real MVP performance at both ends of the court.
A franchise already trying to tiptoe through its first playoff season of the 21st century without one franchise icon in Tim Duncan, kept right on moving forward despite the loss of another to take a 2-1 lead in the series.
“It took some time, but this group has been together for a little while, for the most part,” said Danny Green. “Our foundation has some veterans, guys who have been in this league long enough to know how injuries go. Follow Manu’s lead; Pop’s lead. Obviously, we feel bad for Tony. We do the best we can to play for him right now.”
In a place they’d never been before, the Spurs knew exactly how to survive.