HOUSTON – This was a compelling clash of styles even before the Nene news broke on Monday.
The Houston Rockets reserve big man is done for the season with a left groin tear suffered in the first quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday, when the San Antonio Spurs’ Go-Big-or-Go-Home approach fell short against the small-ball strategy of James Harden & Co. The slow and steady Spurs lost 125-104, overwhelmed by a fast and furious Rockets group that rediscovered its identity with its special season on the line.
The Spurs’ twin towers, their front court of LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol that brings 13 feet, 11 inches of combined length and a shared total of 510 pounds, struggled to survive with all those Rockets shooters that surrounded them. The flurry of threes finally fell, 19 in all on 43 attempts (44.2%) for the team that set NBA records in three-pointers attempted and made during the regular season. In Game 2 and 3, Houston hit just 23 threes combined (converting at a 31.5% clip). And now, with the Rockets looking to regain the series lead in Game 5 in San Antonio on Tuesday, the something’s-gotta-give factor will be even more pronounced because of Houston’s dearth of plus-sized options.
If the second half of Game 4 was any indication – and it likely was – Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni might go small again by replacing forward Ryan Anderson (6-10) with sixth man Eric Gordon (6-4) in the starting lineup (along with the 6-5 Harden, 6-1 guard Pat Beverley, 6-8 small forward Trevor Ariza, and 6-10 center Clint Capela). Anderson, who started all season long but came off the bench to start the third quarter in Game 4, said he expects to do the same in Game 5.
“The more fast-paced tempo we have, the better,” said Anderson, who had 13 points and hit three of seven threes on Sunday. “When they play their big lineups, we can get stops and run them, confuse them in pick and rolls, get their bigs in the pick and rolls regardless if Aldridge is guarding Trevor or who the bigs are guarding, we need to get them mixed up into difficult situations, so transition is really important, but running and getting into those pick and roll opportunities is important too.
“(Nene) is a huge part of the team, and he’s brought so much to these playoffs and this season. But it’s a time in these playoffs where you’ve got to step up…I have a bit of a different position coming off (the bench), putting more of a focus on being a (center), filling in that role a little bit. We’re confident still in what we have and what we can do.”
The part they can’t control, of course, is the possible Gregg Popovich counter. While the Spurs coach swapped David Lee for Pau Gasol in the starting lineup after the Rockets’ Game 1 rout, he could choose to downsize as a way to mitigate the impact of all the forthcoming mismatches. If not, the Rockets say they’re ready for another clash of styles.
“Just fight them as much as possible,” Harden said of his frequent battling against San Antonio's bigs. "Just fight ‘em, make them make tough shots, and gang rebound. It’s pretty high intensity. The most important thing is if we gang rebound, you have to go after the basketball at a high level.
“That’s how we’ve been playing all year long. A little bit of rim attacks, little bit of shooting threes, and clearly some guys shot the ball really well on our team.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick.