Five takeaways from the Houston Rockets’ 125-104 win over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals on Sunday at the Toyota Center.
A game of aggression
HOUSTON – When the Rockets aren’t trying to find new ways to solve this Spurs puzzle, players and coaches alike have a habit of playing the popular cell phone game, “Words with friends,” with one another as a way to unwind.
The word of the day on Sunday, when the Rockets routed the Spurs and thus tied the series 2-2 with Game 5 in San Antonio on Tuesday? Aggressive.
From James Harden on down, the Rockets emphasized the importance of having a pedal-to-the-medal mentality from here on out. That’s the lesson they had to re-learn in the first quarter, when that approach led to a 15-point lead just eight minutes in.
No more sauntering up the court after made baskets and letting the Spurs’ vaunted defense set up. No more letting San Antonio dictate the tempo that tortured them so in those Game 2 and 3 losses. And in those possessions when the halfcourt offense is needed, no more low-percentage floaters in the lane when the twin towers of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge are looming.
“They were in attack mode,” Harden said of his supporting group. “We told them we aren’t going to get to where we want to go if you guys don’t be aggressive. Make or miss, I don’t care. (It’s a) rare night that all of those guys struggled in Game 3, (but) today was a lot better. So we’ve got to keep that momentum up, and be aggressive. Eric’s shot looked really good. He got to the basket, Ryan, and also Lou. Even when (Spurs small forward) Kawhi (Leonard) was guarding him, he was really aggressive.”
Flash Gordon reappears
All season long, the enormous jumbotron at the Toyota Center would flash an animated version of Gordon every time he hit a big shot. But that graphic wasn’t showing up quite as often these days, what with the Rockets’ sixth man having struggled to find good looks against stout Spurs defenders like Leonard, Danny Green, and Jonathon Simmons.
Yet after averaging just 5.6 three-pointers attempted in the first three games of the series – down from his 8.8 average in the regular season – he found a way to return to form: Six made threes on nine attempts, good for a 22-point outing that was his best of this postseason.
“I’m just going to be way more aggressive than normal,” Gordon told USA TODAY Sports. “The thing is, I’ve been shooting the ball very well, from three and from (the field overall). I’m almost shooting 50% from regular field (specifically, 48.8%) and three-point (50% exactly), so I’ve just got to take more shots.”
“Forget it,” he said he told himself heading into Game 4. “I just need to put ‘em up.”
Nene goes down ...
The Rockets survived the loss of Nene, the 34-year-old center who suffered a left groin injury in the first quarter that was bad enough to warrant an MRI being taken by night’s end.
“I don’t know the status on Nene yet, but just – it’s tough to see our big fella go out, especially (considering) how hard he works to keep his body in shape,” Harden said. “(He’s) one of the leaders of our team. No matter what, other guys have to step up.”
... and forces an absurd mismatch
While Nene has struggled in this series, the Rockets need all the big men they can get as they try to deal with the Spurs’ massive frontcourt of Aldridge and Gasol. His absence created quite the entertaining quandary for the Rockets in the third quarter, when coach Mike D’Antoni decided to stay small and try to take advantage of the most extreme of mismatches.
“LaMarcus is a big dude,” Harden said. “He was giving me problems. But no matter what, I’m a fighter. I’m going to try to make him make tough shots. We kind of had to go small to start the second half, and I was guarding Pau and LaMarcus, who are both a height advantage. But I’m gonna fight ‘em. I’m gonna do all I can to keep them off the rebound, off the offensive glass, and just depend on my teammates for help.”
Harden healthy again
When it comes to the NBA playoffs, it’s tough to find anyone who’s feeling 100 percent by the time you get to this point. But Harden has been battling a cold virus of some sort ever since sitting out against Phoenix back on April 2, one that left him coughing routinely into his jersey earlier in the series and struggling to keep his wind. Yet Harden, apparently, is finally feeling better.
“I can finally breathe,” he said when asked about his health. “I’m alright. No excuses. We don’t make those. Just go out and compete. …They won two really good games, and we bounced back. Now it’s best two out of three. We have to get a win in San Antonio, so Game 5 is very crucial for us.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick