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

Nene's playoff-ending injury changes components of Houston Rockets' gameplan

Clint Capela, Ryan Anderson likely to see new roles as playoffs march on

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

At the start of this 2017 postseason, Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni considered vetean big man Nene to be one of his team’s X factors. “It’s all cute and fun when you’re dancing around,” D’Antoni said, “but when it gets down to mudslinging it’s nice to have a guy like that in the back alley with you and that’s where he’s been really good.”

Now that Nene has been lost for however long the Rockets’ playoff run lasts, the Brazilian backup no longer is an X factor. He’s more of an uh-oh factor, now, to be honest.

Nene, 34, was ruled out for the remainder of Houston’s postseason Monday with what team medical staff diagnosed as a left adductor tear. He had exited Game 4 Sunday against San Antonio after just one minute with what was termed at the time a “groin pull.”

What his absence means is that the Rockets, most likely, will have to do even more dancing around than before, relying on the “cute and fun” stuff to which D’Antoni referred. That might seem like a surmountable challenge against Houston’s likeliest opponents in the Western Conference finals (Golden State) and The Finals (Cleveland), if it survives that long; neither the Warriors nor the Cavaliers are known for bruising, physical play.

That’s fine in the long run, if the Rockets get a long run. D’Antoni used stretch-four forward Ryan Anderson as Clint Capela’s backup at center in Game 4 and went small when using Eric Gordon in the same lineup with James Harden and Patrick Beverley. Besides, it wasn’t a paint-oriented game, given Houston’s 19-of-43 shooting from 3-point range.

Still, it’s hard to imagine San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich not exploiting the void opened by Nene’s injury as an adjustment of some sort now that the West semifinals has been reduced to a best-of-three showdown.

Popovich certainly had taken note of Nene’s play both this season and in the first round against Oklahoma City. “He’s pretty much on the perfect team for the way they play and what their goals are offensively,” the Spurs coach said. “He fits in perfectly as a screen-setter and roller. And he has offensive skills on top of it.

“In the OKC series people who are just fans and not really basketball buffs might not notice him as much as someone else. But his aggressiveness, his scoring, his defense and just his activity were really important in that series.”

Nene played as if rejuvenated (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) in his first season with the Rockets after five in Washington and ranks as Houston’s senior veteran. But now — pending treatment options being weighed by the team’s medical staff — the survivor of testicular cancer in 2008 will have to impart any playoff lessons from the sideline or away from the court.

“I’ve been playing for 15 years at that kind of level and that kind of intensity because I take care of myself,” he said. “I have a little extra motivation. I’ve been through a lot of adversity.”

He and his team just ran into some more.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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