If Spurs fans are looking for something positive to take from the 126-99 drubbing the Houston Rockets gave the Spurs in Monday’s Game 1 of their NBA Western Conference Semifinals, they need look back only 366 days for a shred of encouragement.
On April 30, 2016 the Spurs opened their Western Conference Semifinals matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 124-92 blowout win, also at AT&T Center. The Thunder followed by winning Game 2, plus three of the next four games, eliminating the Spurs and moving on to the Western Conference Finals.
That’s a long reach for the kindest spin that can be applied after one of the worst playoff losses in Spurs franchise history, but no solace whatsoever for one of the team’s most veteran players.
“There is no other option,” said 39-year-old Manu Ginobili, who has been on both sides of plenty of playoff blowouts during his 14 seasons in silver and black. “We just have to forget it, regroup, and try to play way better [in Game 2]. They beat us in every aspect of the game. We were not in the game at any point. We are going to have to play way better than this to have a shot. It is going to be a tough challenge, but I’m looking forward to it.
“Every story in a playoff series is different. Sometimes little things start compounding and it becomes very hard to control. I guess we fueled them a lot early in the game.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who suffered the worst Game 1 playoff loss of his 20 years on the Spurs bench, had set forth the truth of playoff basketball in his pre-game remarks.
“When playoffs come, it all comes down to two things – competing and executing,” Popovich said before tipoff. “Teams that do that for more [of the] 48 minutes are usually the teams that win. And then shooting is always the outlier. On certain nights, somebody is really knocking it down and it covers up all kinds of bad stuff, like turnovers and those sorts of things.”
When the game began, the Spurs coach watched the Rockets out-compete and out-execute the Spurs.
“Sure, we competed,” Popovich said, “but I don’t think we executed in a very wise manner. We disobeyed a lot of basic basketball rules that they can take advantage of. If we’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. So, we’ve got to play a lot smarter than what we saw tonight.
“I thought [the Rockets] played well in every aspect of the game.”
It didn’t help that the team that was “really knocking it down” was Houston, who made a Rockets playoff-record 22 3-point shots. The Rockets attempted 50 shots from long range, an NBA playoff record, but head coach Mike D’Antoni, basketball’s professor of pace, said his team hasn’t yet approached what he considers an excess of shots from beyond the arc.
D’Antoni understands that the blowout nature of Game 1 won’t mean much when Game 2 begins.
“We do not expect it to be like this always,” D’Antoni said.
Before tipoff, this matchup of I-10 rivals had been hyped as a battle of MVP candidates: Houston’s James Harden versus San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard. The lopsided nature of the game dictated that neither superstar play in the fourth quarter, but both put up decent numbers. Harden took only 13 shots but scored 20 points and handed out 14 assists. Leonard scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
Harden had plenty of help. Rockers small forward Trevor Ariza made 5-of-10 3-pointers and scored 23 points while also defending Leonard. Center Clint Capela made 8-of-10 shots, scored 20 points, and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Leonard, meanwhile, was pretty much left to fend for himself. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge had his worst playoff game since joining the Spurs for the 2015-16 season, scoring only four points and getting only six rebounds.
“I thought tonight I was trying to rush because there were so many mismatches on me,” Aldridge said. “Usually, I take my time and take advantage of it, but tonight I was in a rush. So, next game I will definitely go slower.”
Things got choppy late in the game when Spurs backup big man DeWayne Dedmon and Rockets backup big man Nenê tangled under the basket at the end of the third quarter. Nenê was ejected when a video replay showed he had grabbed Dedmon by the throat. Dedmon was tossed when he was whistled for a second technical foul later in the fourth quarter.