HOUSTON — When Pau Gasol walked into the locker room early Thursday evening, he noticed that Kawhi Leonard was not going through his usual pre-game routine.
“Once I saw that I thought, ‘OK, he’s not playing,’ ” Gasol said. ‘We’ll just go out there and do what we do.’ ”
Never mind that the All-Star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate would spend the game in the trainer’s room with a badly sprained left ankle from Game 5.
Ignore that they were already playing since Game 2 without point guard Tony Parker, who’d torn a quadriceps tendon.
But it will be hard to forget the way the San Antonio Spurs went out and plucked the Houston Rockets 114-75 like they were helpless chickens in a barnyard to wrap up the Western Conference semifinals series in six games.
“It’s the same message that I said after Tony got injured in Game 2,” Gasol said. “When adversity hits, you have two options. You can complain and whine and feel bad about yourself or you can regroup and toughen up and play your best and give your best. That’s what we did with the guys we had healthy and ready to play.”
It was expected that two of those guys that stepped up would be the veteran big men, Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, who took advantage of their size all night to dominate in the low post and control the backboards.
But there was also Jonathon Simmons, a 27-year-old in just his second NBA season, who stepped into Leonard’s spot in the starting lineup, dogged the Rockets’ scoring machine James Harden all night and also rang up 18 points. There was 20-year-old rookie Dejounte Murray who zipped and darted wherever he wanted for 11 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, a line that was better than Harden’s (10-3-7).
It will be surmised that the Spurs played on a jolt of adrenaline in the absence of their leading scorer, reaching up above and beyond their individual abilities. But that will be missing the point.
This was why the next time somebody tells you that the long regular season is meaningless, you can tell them that they don’t know a thing. Or at least, they don’t know the Spurs.
These are the performances that grow out of those cold, snowy nights in February in Milwaukee and Detroit or the long road trips that take you through four games in five nights in three different time zones when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich uses the opportunities to dig deep into his bench and gives everybody playing time and experience.
The Spurs had 10 different players average at least 17.5 minutes per game throughout the regular season. They had their top player, Leonard, average just 33.4 minutes. So, it’s not as if they are deer in the headlights anytime he’s not on the court.
A lot of different teams might have expected to see Leonard try to have the ankle wrapped extra tight and try to hobble out onto the court at less than full strength.
“Kawhi’s out. He’d rather play.” Popovich said succinctly.
But the Spurs would rather have him healthy for the next game.
Largest Margin of Defeat in a Home Elimination Game
|April 30, 2015||Milwaukee Bucks||66||Chicago Bulls||120||-54|
|April 5, 1969||San Francisco Warriors||78||Los Angeles Lakers||118||-40|
|May 11, 2017||Houston Rockets||75||San Antonio Spurs||114||-39|
|April 6, 1948||St. Louis Bombers||46||Philadelphia Warriors||85||-39|
|April 29, 1987||Denver Nuggets||103||Los Angeles Lakers||140||-37|
“We do this throughout the regular season,” said Patty Mills, who took over for Parker at the point. “I know it’s not the same, but guys weren’t too out of place with what to expect. Guys knew what to do when they came in the game, knew what their role was. It’s not easy, guys sitting there for however long, but to come in and play their role and execute it is all a mindset thing, making sure you’re ready to go and have that appropriate fear and coming in to make an impact and try not to overdo their role, but we’re used to it because we’ve practiced it throughout the season. We tend to take the long view.”
It’s how the Spurs have won 50-plus games for an NBA record 18 consecutive seasons, how they’ve missed the playoffs only three times in 33 years. If the playoffs are a war of attrition, they are always making sure there are more arms.
Due to injuries and adjustments, Popovich used five different starting lineups in the six-game series. After the Rockets failed to reach 100 points only five times in the entire regular season, the Spurs kept them below the century mark three times, ending with the stifling 79 in the clincher.
There will be plenty of time to pick apart the Rockets’ collapse, from the too-short playoff rotation used by coach Mike D’Antoni to Harden once more being physically and emotionally spent in the playoffs from carrying so much of the offensive load and padding stats since October. After letting the tantalizing Game 5 slip away in overtime, the Rockets appeared dead of legs and of spirit from the opening tip.
The Spurs were electric moving the ball, getting 32 assists on 51 field goals and dominating the backboards 60-32.
“You go out with the mentality that we have nothing to lose,” said Danny Green. “We want to win this game regardless of whoever is on the floor. We do what we do.”
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