SAN ANTONIO — It was the kind of undressing that was more than two decades in the making.
Back in 1995, the last time these two teams met in the playoffs, Hakeem Olajuwon faked one way, then another, spun this way and then that, went up and under, over and around, and left the thoroughly befuddled David Robinson twisted into pretzel knots in one of the great whippings in NBA history.
That was one man, one set of moves.
This was the Dream Shake Revisited and Reloaded, humiliation times a dozen, practically a chorus line that twirled and juked by the Spurs and high-kicked as if they were actually basketball-playing Rockettes.
One game, the Rockets will tell themselves, a caution to not get too far ahead in the story after delivering a 126-99 thumping on Monday night in the series opener at the AT&T Center.
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One game, the Spurs will say, as if to convince themselves that they were not beaten in every facet of the game and from every angle on the court.
Sure, it could all turn around over the twists and turns of the next two weeks. Perhaps it could change by Game 2.
The Spurs can remind themselves they won Game 1 in the same round of the playoffs a year ago against Oklahoma City and wound up losing the series in six.
But for such a turnabout, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich is going to have to come up with more right answers than a perfect SAT score.
“Sure, we competed. But I don’t think we executed in a wise manner.”
– Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
How can he make a pair of aging guards in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili run with younger legs? How can he get his big men LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol to stand up taller? How can he find a way for his team to guard every single one of the Rockets shooters who fire from any distance?
“Sure, we competed,” Popovich said. “But I don’t think we executed in a wise manner. We disobeyed a lot of basic basketball rules that they can take advantage of. If you’re going to shoot quickly and shoot poorly, it’s going to be a fast break deal all night long and they’re better at that than we are.”
The Rockets hit 22 of 50 from behind the arc, the most 3-pointers ever made against the Spurs in a playoff game. They came out firing, forced the pace and had San Antonio virtually backpedaling from the start. They led by 10 after five minutes, by 22 early in the second quarter and eventually by 39 before their arms got tired.
It was the end of the third quarter when a scuffle broke out under the basket that ended with Nene getting ejected for grabbing Dewayne Dedmon by the throat.
By that standard of justice, the entire Rockets lineup could have already been run off the floor for choking the life right out of the Spurs.
It wasn’t a lopsided fight, because that implies that the other guy at least occasionally put up his arms in an attempt to block the pummeling.
This is what the Rockets are when the fast break is humming like electricity through a power line, when the 3s are raining down in buckets, when the ball is practically bouncing from one set of hands to another, when even their usually uneven defense looked impressive.
James Harden scored 20 to go with his playoff career-high 14 assists. Trevor Ariza banged in 23 points, Clint Capela 20, Ryan Anderson 14, Lou Williams 13 and Eric Gordon 11. Everywhere Harden turned, he had another option to pass the ball and get a score.
Meanwhile, Spurs star forward Kawhi Leonard was often double-teamed and left starving for help. At least on this night, he got none from Aldridge, the $84-million free agent from the summer of 2015 who was supposed to be a difference maker. Instead, the 6-foot-11 power forward was an empty vessel, making just 2-for-7 from the field for four points. The 7-foot Gasol was 2-for-3 for six points and 6-foot-9 David Lee 0-for-2 for four points.
“We’ve got to get some scoring out of our big guys,” Popovich said. “Obviously one might think we have an advantage in that area and that didn’t work out for us at all.”
It didn’t work out because the Rockets put their foot down on the Spurs’ necks and never let up. They were coming off a five-game first-round win over the Thunder where they were nagged by slow starts and could never get their running game in gear or their 3-pointers to fall consistently. They seemed determined not to go through that again.
“We knew it was really important for us to get off to a rally good start, especially on the road,” said Harden. “We did it. We had the energy level up. Defensively we were active. We were contesting shots. We rebounded the basketball and offensively we were sharing it, playing off the catch and then knocking down shots. We have to keep that same momentum.”
Just like the original Dream Shake, answers are hard to find.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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