By: Mitchell Felker
We may have counted our chickens before they hatched.
For several weeks now, it's looked like the Houston Rockets were going to be the two-seed, and play the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs. Now, all of a sudden, the Rockets are in the three-spot and are only a half-game from slipping all the way to sixth with four to play.
The San Antonio Spurs, after Wednesday night's drubbing of the home team, have won nine in a row and 12 of their last 13. They still sit sixth, but with a win Friday night in Houston the Spurs can completely change the look of the Western Conferences' first round.
And for the Spurs, it all starts with Tony Parker. I know Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league. I know Russell Westbrook is the most explosive, John Wall is the quickest, and Kyrie Irving the best scorer. But is there another player in the NBA that can make running an offense look easier than Tony Parker? He is the rare combination of scoring guard and floor general that you just don't see very often. Parker lived in the paint against Houston, scoring with a bevy of scoops, floaters and pull-ups. The Rockets don't miss much of Patrick Beverly on offense, but you have to think he would have been able to do a better job of at least making Parker work to get to his spots than either Jason Terry or Pablo Prigioni were able to.
And on the other end, the Rockets didn't have their usual explosiveness. Houston started strong, scoring 33 points in the first quarter, but a three at the buzzer by Boris Diaw really seemed to take the air out of the Rockets for the rest of the game. James Harden scored 13 points in the opening quarter and was 6-6 from the free throw line. But he only had 9 points in the final three quarters, and only got to the line two more times. The story was the same with Dwight Howard, who had 6 points and 7 rebounds in the first quarter, and managed only 10 and 4 the rest of the game.
Joey Dorsey continued to embarrass himself from the free throw line. He was only 0-4, but had another air-ball and didn't come close to making any of his attempts. The Spurs announcers had to really contain their joy whenever he was at the line, and swallow laughter after Dorsey tried to crack the glass his shots. I know Dorsey brings some things defensively, but is he really an improvement over Clint Capela at this point? (Keep in mind that Capela was a 60% FT shooter in the D-League, despite the putrid start to his NBA career). Dorsey routinely gets rebounds tipped away from him by taller players, and his free throw shooting is a big, giant bulls-eye when the playoffs get here. All things being the same, I'd just assume see Capela, the young buck with all the potential and length, get Dorsey's minutes and start figuring out how to be an NBA regular a little earlier than expected.
Trevor Ariza (19 points, 5-6 from deep) and Josh Smith (13 pts, 3 reb and 5 ast) had solid games for the Rockets. Prigioni did some nice things, but could only do so much. And that was about it for Houston. Corey Brewer shot 1-6 from the field and somehow managed a plus/minus of -22 in only 23 minutes. Terrence Jones had probably his least effective game of the season, getting zero boards and only scoring only 2 points. Add that to Jason Terry's 4 point, 1 assist line and the Rockets got almost zilch out of 40% of their starting five.
Besides Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw were all over the court, stuffing the stat sheet. Aaron Baynes outworked Houston's bigs all night and had a game-high 12 rebounds. Manu Ginobli's three made three pointers felt like 10, hitting them all to either cap a Spurs run or beat the buzzer.
After getting the devastating news that Donatas Motiejunas would miss the rest of the year earlier in the day, this game just felt par for the course for the Rockets. They just can't catch a break. And for several weeks now, Rockets fans have been eying the standings, trying to decide who they'd prefer to host in a first round matchup. And for weeks its looked like it would be either Dallas or San Antonio. But after the Spurs recent run, and this loss by Houston, it could very well end up that San Antonio hosts Houston in game one.
Wouldn't that be just awesome.