Spurs look to close out Rockets with Leonard ailing
HOUSTON The San Antonio Spurs are a victory away from eliminating the Houston Rockets and advancing to the Western Conference finals for the first time since winning the NBA title in 2014.
But entering Thursday night’s Game 6 in Houston there are questions about whether Kawhi Leonard will be at full strength after rolling his ankle in an overtime win on Tuesday night. The Spurs’ MVP candidate was hurt when he stepped on James Harden’s foot about midway through the third quarter. He played limited minutes for the rest of regulation and did not play in overtime.
San Antonio’s All-Star said after the game that it was “a little sore” and he was limping. But he insisted that he’s fine and will be ready to go on Thursday.
If Leonard is still hobbled for Game 6 it will be another blow to a team already without Tony Parker, after the veteran suffered a seasonending quadriceps injury in Game 2.
Leonard was pragmatic when asked if he thinks his team is in control of the series after escaping with a win on Tuesday night.
“No,” he said. “Not in control until we win Game 6.”
After getting blown out in their last trip the Houston, the Spurs know eliminating a team with its back against the wall will be a huge task.
“It’s going to be tough,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “They’re a great offensive team. A bunch of competitive guys, they play way more confident at home ... it’s going to be about taking care of the ball, playing confident, just trying to minimize our mistakes out there.”
The Rockets are left to ponder their missed opportunity after failing to take advantage of Leonard’s absence in overtime of the 110-107 loss. Harden was brilliant through most of Tuesday’s game, finishing with a triple-double — 33 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. But he seemed to run out of gas in an overtime where he was held scoreless, and had a 3-pointer which could have tied the game blocked by 39-year-old Manu Ginobili just before the buzzer.
“We let one slip away,” Harden said. “Execution and rebounding are probably the two primary things we let slip away in this game. We still have an opportunity in Game 6 to go home and protect home court and bring it back for Game 7.”
Harden wasn’t the only Rocket who seemed spent late on a night when Houston used just seven players. Coach Mike D’Antoni has used an eight-man rotation throughout the playoffs, but didn’t add anyone to the mix on Tuesday in the first game since backup centre Nene suffered a torn thigh muscle.
D’Antoni wasn’t sure after the game if he’d tweak the rotation in the next game.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t think about it too much on the way here, but I’ll think about it and I’ll let you know tomorrow or the next day or maybe not. I have no clue.”
Need To Know: As has been the case all series, the Spurs will try to limit Houston’s 3-pointers. The Rockets, who set an NBA record by making 1,081 3s in the regular season, have averaged 20.5 3-pointers in their two wins and just 13 in the three losses.
Keep An Eye On: Houston’s rotation. Nene averaged 17.9 minutes a game in the team’s first nine playoff games, and at 6-foot-11 and 250-pounds he was a strong inside presence to help deal with Pau Gasol and Aldridge. It will be interesting to see if D’Antoni employs the seven-man rotation on Thursday or if he gives second-year players Sam Dekker or Montrezl Harrell a chance to contribute. At 6-8 Harrell is undersized to play centre, but his athleticism helped him excel when he was getting consistent playing time midway through the regular season.
Pressure Is On: Both teams. The Spurs will have to win in Houston for the second time this series to avoid a Game 7 in San Antonio. Houston has to have a victory in Game 6 to keep alive their hopes of reaching the conference finals for the second time in three years.