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NBA playoff scores 2017: The Spurs defense was the real MVP of Game 3

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San Antonio beat Houston on Friday, and they did it with sensational defense.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

You didn’t need a discerning, basketball eye to see something was wrong with the Houston Rockets on Friday. Early on in Game 3, it seemed very clear that the Rockets weren’t getting their usual looks, and that their three-point attempts were even more harried than usual. A couple times this season, the Rockets went entire games without making a mid-range shot. On Friday, they kept getting forced into them.

That, we are certain, is certainly not what this year’s Rockets are all about. Here’s what we mean.

The Rockets eventually ended up with 39 three-point attempts, making just 12. James Harden scored 43 points, meaning the rest of the Rockets scored 49 points combined and shot just 30 percent from the field. Trevor Ariza scored 17 points, but most of them came in the first quarter, and only one other Rocket managed double figures.

These are problems that partly exist because the Rockets weren’t playing their best basketball.

But the Spurs defense had its best showing all season, just about. The league’s top ranked defense during the regular season made Houston uncomfortable from start to finish. Here were the basic defensive principles they abided by throughout Game 3.

  • They switched frequently on pick-and-rolls, and were especially complacent when Harden ran a pick-and-roll only to get Kawhi Leonard off him. Often, the switch was right to Danny Green, something the Spurs were fine with.
  • San Antonio stayed home on the Rockets shooters as much as possible, not doubling or playing the pick-and-rolls too aggressively.
  • The Spurs basically vacated the paint right below the free throw line. For Harden, they allowed him to play one-on-one and sometimes burn them. When Harden hit the rolling big men, especially Nene, the Spurs collapsed after he would catch the ball on a roll to the rim and did an excellent job poking the ball away. That exact play must have happened at least a half dozen times.
  • They relied on LaMarcus Aldridge to come up huge as a shot blocker around the rim, and he did just that, swatting four shots. With Dewayne Dedmon falling out of the rotation, Aldridge is the only player with the mobility to really be a shot blocker, so his contributions there are a welcomed addition.

The result was a Rockets offense that looked suspiciously, problematically like the Oklahoma City offense that Houston had just knocked out of the playoffs.

That can’t hold for Houston, who needs better contributions from everyone surrounding Harden. They also need a plan to generate better looks for their role players, or just need to encourage them to take the driving lane and take their luck going up against Aldridge at the rim.

But now down two games to one and without home court advantage once again, Houston needs to find answers quick, and against a defense that is incredibly good at what they do.

Rockets-Spurs drew all too easy parallels from the Rockets to the Thunder.

Like Russell Westbrook last round, it too often came down to Harden making things happen. The Rockets superstar hasn’t had the most comfortable playoffs in either round, but San Antonio allowed him to go off, to a point, in exchange for no one else on the team doing anything. That strategy worked.

Houston can’t let that happen going forwards. Some of it is on the players themselves, who can find better looks or do a smarter job finding shots after being run off the line. Some of it is San Antonio’s stellar defense, which can’t be totally circumvented. Regardless, too much fell too often to Harden.

Like Westbrook last round, the Rockets have to make it about more than Harden. Otherwise, they’ll lose.

Credit the Spurs defense for why this happened, but the deja vu of watching it occur again was something.

DeMar DeRozan, his great game, and the questions that still remain.

DeRozan’s 37 points stood out in Game 3, despite the loss, but he hasn’t been consistent enough this postseason to prevent this line of questioning.

DeRozan was amazing on Friday, but it may not answer all the questions about him. Twice in these playoffs, he had games where he was nearly a complete no-show — eight points on 0-of-8 shooting in Game 3 against the Bucks, and five points in Game 2 of this series. That’s hard to stomach from someone who’s supposed to be your best scorer and, depending on you feel about Kyle Lowry, best overall player. (Lowry wasn’t good this postseason, either. It’s a trend for both.)

The analysis about DeRozan that’s now growing boring is that his game doesn’t fit into the modern NBA. There is some validity to that, perhaps less in the way the play manifests itself and more in the way it allows defenses to limit him. Still, DeRozan did make crucial plays while having enormous games against the Bucks, averaging 24 points in that series.

As the Raptors were nudged onto the chopping block, DeRozan resisted for all he was worth. Without Lowry and facing an all-time force in this league in LeBron James, there just wasn’t a happy ending to be had in Toronto on Friday.

Friday’s top quote

LeBron James shot three left-handed floaters on Friday, even though he is (obviously) a right-handed jump shooter. It was a reminder that he’s mostly left-handed in his everyday life, so here’s the story of why he ended up shooting with the right.

Friday’s top play

This was a Good Dunk.

Friday’s scores

Cavaliers 115, Raptors 94 (Fear the Sword recap | Raptors HQ recap)

Spurs 103, Rockets 92 (Pounding the Rock recap | The Dream Shake recap)