You can’t really win basketball games shooting 36 percent. That’s what the Rockets tried to do on Friday in Game 3, predictably falling short. When you consider James Harden led the way with 43 points on 50 percent shooting, Houston’s problems become clear.
It’s 30 percent, or 18-of-60. That’s how well the non-Harden Rockets shot on Friday, thanks to both their own shortcomings and a healthy, well-calculated defensive plan from San Antonio designed to never let them free. In a 103-92 victory, San Antonio moves ahead two games to one, retaking home court advantage in the series after a clobbering in Game 1. The Spurs still need two more wins without Tony Parker, who is out for the playoffs, but they currently hold the cards.
The Rockets aren’t a one-man team only made up of Harden, something that was often used as a detractor of the superstar during MVP arguments. Clearly, Houston built their 55-win season (the third-best record in the league) due to Harden’s brilliant play matching a plethora of highly skilled players around him.
The Rockets built their team and felt comfortable that no player stood out as the second-best player. On any given night, one of the five players who average between 12 and 16 points could finish second in scoring. Eric Gordon and later Lou Williams carved out sixth men of the year candidacies by frequently doing just that.
But when it fails, it’s hard to know where the Rockets should point blame. Ryan Anderson’s two points and 0-of-4 shooting isn’t enough, but neither was Patrick Beverley’s 3-of-13 shooting and Trevor Ariza’s 6-of-15 after a red-hot start. Gordon scored nine points off the bench; Williams played just 11 minutes without a bucket.
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.