Playoffs 2017: West Semifinals -- Spurs (2) vs. Rockets (3)

In return home, Houston Rockets squander golden opportunity with flat offensive performance

James Harden scores 43 points on 50 percent shooting, but teammates shot 18 of 60 from the field in Game 3 loss to San Antonio Spurs

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

HOUSTON — He didn’t have to say it for everyone else to know exactly what he was thinking, what he and the rest of the Houston Rockets were thinking.

Whatever opportunity they created in their Game 1 rout of the San Antonio Spurs earlier this week vanished Friday night at Toyota Center.

All season long James Harden and the Rockets have done their best to challenge the conventional wisdom that, as good as they are, they are simply not in the same class of championship-caliber team as the Golden State Warriors and Spurs.

Yet with a chance to prove it, they fell flat in a Game 3 slugfest the Spurs won 103-92, without future Hall of Fame point guard Tony Parker, who is done for the series after surgery to repair a torn quad earlier in the day.

The Spurs snatched home court advantage back in this series by winning their second straight game and leaving the Rockets, beaten to the punch basically all night, to wonder what might have been had they could scrap their way to what could have been their most critical win all season.

And they are not nearly as effective when they can’t get out in transition and take advantages of mismatches and cross matches that favor them. They lit up the scoreboard with 22 made 3-pointers in Game 1 of this series. They made a combined 23 in Games 2 and 3 and dropped to 1-5 on the season when held to 98 points or less.

“Well, they are doing a better job of getting back,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of what changed for his team in transition. “They did have 21 turnovers but we just didn’t convert them. We did get after it … but you know it becomes a slugfest. And you know they made big shots, we didn’t.”

The Rockets, for all of their offensive fireworks this season, are not made for a slugfest. Not when their big men get outworked by LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol in the way they did, protecting the rim and closing off all the angles for the easy shots that the Rockets drilled them on in Game 1. Not when Harden is forced into a role as a scorer first, second and third and a facilitator last (he scored 43 points but had just five assists). And certainly, not when Ryan Anderson plays his first 28 minutes without scoring a point and he, Lou Williams and Nene combine to shoot 0-for-13 from the floor and finish with three points between them.

“We’ve just got to play better,” Harden said. “I think we played hard tonight. Offensively we just got to get guys involved, guys just got to have confidence and knock down the se shots sand be aggressive.”

It’s going to take more than that if the Spurs have found their extra gear. Because the physical bumping and grinding the Spurs have injected into this series since that Game 1 is undeniable. .

Not only did the Rockets buckle under the pressure physically, they were absent in a guttural sense. Instead of treating Game 3 with the sense of urgency of a team with a chance to step on the Spurs’ necks while they might have been reeling a bit from the loss of Parker, they performed like a team that knows a Game 4 win here Sunday (9 p.m. EST, TNT) turns this into a best-of-three series.

“No,” D’Antoni said, “intensity was right. I mean we held the to 103 points, that’s a good number to hold them to. But they shoot about 45 percent, so you know how we — offense we just let ourselves down. We just couldn’t get it going and we couldn’t — guys couldn’t get open. And if they were, they wouldn’t make them and you know, really we can’t shoot 35 percent.”

A carbon copy performance Sunday will most certainly send this series back to San Antonio with the Rockets in a hole, one that might not be able to shoot their way out of.

“We got every shot we wanted,” Rockets guard Patrick Beverley said. “We had 10 in and outs. We are not going to get caught up in our shot. We played a helluva game defensively. We were defending, we just couldn’t get anything to fall and it happens. But that won’t stop us. We are going to stay locked in. They retook home court advantage and that’s why it’s a series. It’s the playoffs. We are excited to get to the next game. This game is over with; we can’t do anything about it. Wash it down whenever we take a shower and get ready for the next game.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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