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NBA Playoffs 2017: Rockets bombers get hot again, blow by Spurs to even series

That’s more like it.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets squared up their Western Conference semifinals with the San Antonio Spurs Wednesday night, blowing them out for the second time in four games for a 125-104 victory.

The Rockets shot 44.2 percent from deep and got 22 points from Eric Gordon and 16 points from Trevor Ariza, alongside another vintage James Harden performance. It’s exactly the formula they followed in Game 1, although they broke the game open in the second half tonight, rather than leading comfortably from wire-to-wire.

For the second straight game, Harden looked explosive and recovered from his ankle injury. Unlike in the Game 3 dud, his supporting cast canned shots, and it energized the defense. But seeing him soar like this again, after watching him wince through four or five games of a bum wheel, was the highlight of the night.

Harden finished with 28 points on 18 shots (including just six free throw attempts and four makes) along with 12 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and a game-high +/- of +28. The Spurs made the clear decision that they would do anything but foul him — Danny Green was guarding him hands up on the perimeter, in the “I’m not touching him! I’m not touching him!” pose — and it gave Harden freedom to create for his teammates.

For such a terrific win, there are quite a few somber notes to take from this game. First, Patrick Beverley was playing through pain after learning that his grandfather died. He was emotional after hitting the first shot of the game, a three-pointer, ‘natch, and played one of your typical Pat Beverley games: affecting everything on the court while he’s out there in ways that don’t appear on a box score, as well as amassing a tidy 10-point, 6-assist, 4-rebound, 1-turnover stat line for himself.

After the game, he was just Pat: raw, honest and captivating.

In less sad life news, but sadder basketball news, Nene left this game after four minutes with a groin injury and didn’t return. He underwent an MRI, Mike D’Antoni said “he pulled his groin pretty good” and nothing more, and his status is very much in doubt for Games 5 and 6, let alone a possible Game 7 in San Antonio.

Without Nene, Ryan Anderson played center and Sam Dekker saw his first time of the playoffs in a non-blowout situation. Dekker didn’t score, and the Rockets bench wasn’t as potent with a different mix of players. Capela usually anchors the units with Gordon, Anderson and Lou Williams, providing rim protection when Lou and Ryno inevitably get beat by their men. Nene and Harden make beautiful music together. The Spurs are the biggest team left in the playoffs by far. This is not an insignificant loss, and could prove fatal. Time will tell.

The Rockets played better without Nene in the second half, but that’s easy when Anderson, Gordon, Bev and Trevor Ariza shoot a combined 24-44 and 13/24 from three-point range. Once again, the Rockets are successful when a plurality of their shooters hit. It didn’t much matter that Williams went 6-15 and 1-5 from deep and Dekker took just one shot and missed it. Enough of their players hit, and they win.

Over next three games, Rockets fans just have to cross their fingers it happens again, twice.