With the news that backup center Nene will miss the rest of the season with a muscle tear in his left thigh, the Rockets have hit their first true adversity of the postseason.
Nene’s been great all playoffs, averaging 10 points and 5 rebounds on 70 percent shooting, while providing the Rockets with a battle-hardened veteran and a tough, physical presence inside. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time, with Houston locked in a back-and-forth slugfest with the San Antonio Spurs, who feature one of the league’s bigger front courts.
Pau Gasol and Lamarcus Aldridge have hurt the Rockets in this series, and were doing so again in Game 4. So after Nene went down, Houston head coach Mike D’antoni decided to go small, using Ryan Anderson at the five for stretches and guarding one of the Spurs bigs with James Harden.
He won the game in the best way he knew how. D’Antoni told Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney. By emphasizing even more three-point shooting.
"What was going through my mind was going three, two, three, two," D'Antoni said. "Y'know? I kinda like the math."
As the teams head back to San Antonio with the Rockets down a key big, expect plenty more of that same philosophy for the rest of this series. The keys for victory for the Rockets so far in this series have been: hitting their three-point shots and getting out and running away from the older, slower Spurs in transition. The smaller lineup inserted when Clint Capela needs a breather gives them an opportunity to do both.
While the Rockets have two other big men in Chinanu Onuaku and Montrezl Harrell, D’Antoni likely feels neither is quite ready for the challenges Aldridge and Gasol present and feels more comfortable hedging his bets with his cadre of fleet-of-foot three-point shooters. And honestly, in all likelihood, it’s the correct move.
The Rockets will win this series if they can continue to trade threes for twos, and that’s whether Harrell’s on the court or not. Houston can’t match the Spurs’ size or strength without Nene, so going small represents their next best chance of securing the series upset.
James Harden sounded like the Rockets were fully ready to embrace small ball. And why shouldn’t they? It’s something they’ve done to good success at various points throughout the regular season. He told Mahoney:
"We might be planning to see that lineup a lot more. We've gotta do a really good job. We've gotta watch the film, see how can we be better defensively. And offensively, the floor is obviously spaced so our offense is gonna be good. Defensively is the key. If we can get that contained, we give ourself a chance."
The Houston starting lineup may change, with Eric Gordon in for Anderson. Once Capela comes off for his first stretch, we’re likely likely to see the Rockets go small. D’Antoni will also likely continue to bring Sam Dekker off the bench as well. He’ll be the eighth man in the rotation, and will probably need to see more than the 10 minutes he played last night to help keep everyone fresh.
It’s definitely not the ideal situation to be without one of the key cogs that helped get them to this point, but the construct of this Rockets team allows them counter with a style of play with which they’ve been effective.
Will it be tough to pull off in two of the next three? Sure, the Spurs will undoubtedly have an answer cooked up for it. But if anyone can pull it off, it’s James Harden, Mike D’Antoni and these Rockets. Besides, it wouldn’t be a true journey without a little adversity. The Beard said to SI:
"We've been saying all year long that adversity's gonna hit, you know? It's how you respond from it."