Rockets 92, Spurs 103 - The Tightening of the Screw

Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, has a mind like a steel trap and a team like one, too. After a ridiculous game one drubbing at the hands of the Houston Rockets, nothing has been the same. The Spurs are now in total control of the series as they choke the life out of Houston. The San Antonio defense has gone into full effect, the Rockets have lost two in a row, and for the first time all season have failed to hit a hundred points in two consecutive games.

The one saving grace for the Rockets is that it seems unlikely to get any worse. Their defense has completely crumbled, the bench is an atrocity, and the three-point shooting is ineffective. If the Rockets can cobble together even a rough approximation of their system in game four, they have a realistic shot. The problem is that the Spurs are tearing it down faster than the Rockets can put it together.

Pau Gasol, for instance, moved into the starting lineup after that game one rout. Rather than being a defensive liability as one might expect, he's actually been an anchor. He's blocked everything that's come his way at the rim, letting the Spurs close out and prevent three pointers with impunity. The Rockets have to punish the Spurs for anchoring their defense with the creaky Pau Gasol, but so far haven't been able to.

The Rockets also have to get more help from the role players. The much ballyhooed Houston supporting cast has been a dumpster fire of late, while San Antonio's supporting cast has done their job to perfection. The Spurs are playing as though they're the massive underdog while the Rockets look like an exposed pretender. If it weren't for all the games they've played beforehand it would be hard to believe that players like Ryan Anderson or Lou Williams were actually considered to be useful players. Nene, hero of the first round, has been completely negligible in the last two games, if not worse.

Harden himself might have scored a lot of points, but he did it in the manner of a different MVP candidate. He looked like a wreck in game two, but seemed not himself in this game. His drive and kick game has been shut down by denying the open men he's so used to finding. The Spurs would seem to be weak on the inside defensively, but so far have managed to precisely time the help to make harden think twice about driving to the rim. It's a perfect storm and the Rockets are capsizing in it.

In a series that seemed to have so many matchup positives for Houston, the Spurs have made all the adjustments and have dominated because of it. Head coach Mike D'antoni and the Rockets have to produce an ingenious escape plan, or the torture rack the Spurs have tied them to is going to gradually tear them apart. The Spurs know that without Tony Parker they may tire over a long series, and will do everything in their power to force this series to an early close. The Rockets have to withstand this assault, but so far have been unable to.

Each game is, as always, a new day.Game four may see a refreshed harden and an angry Rockets team come out and dominate from the get-go. It also may see the Rockets succumb to frustration. This series remains confusing and weird, and is oddly unpleasant to watch despite the two teams seeming to be closely matched. This is what the Spurs do to you. It's easy to forget that when you've never played against this version of them in the playoffs.

DARK GAME BALL

Lou Williams and Nene must share this indignity. It's glistening skin seeks two things: stupid lapses and missed midrange shots. Lou Williams looked bad all night, but the cherry on top was at the end of the third quarter when he allowed Jonathon Simmons to run right up to the three point line for an open three at the buzzer. Nene took eight-hundred thousand midrange shots early on, exactly what the Spurs were hoping for. May your nights be consumed with the ebon flame of the Dark Game Ball.

May next game be a new dawn. That's what the Rockets have to not just hope for, but bring into being.

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