Spurs earn a defining victory with depth and defense in Game 6

AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith

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The San Antonio Spurs beat the Houston Rockets 114–75 on the road Thursday to close out their second-round series in six games … without Kawhi Leonard, their best player at both ends of the floor. Could anything be more Spurs-y than that?

With a Game 7 looking almost inevitable after the news of Leonard’s left ankle sprain that would keep him sidelined, the Spurs broke out the most characteristic next-man-up, defensive performance a fan could ask for.

As the team’s second-leading scorer behind LaMarcus Aldridge’s playoff-high 34 points, Jonathon Simmons stepped up yet again after a great showing in Game 5, both in terms of his scoring and stifling defense on James Harden.

Making his first career start in the playoffs, Simmons helped limit Harden to a passive stat line of 10 points (2 of 11 from the field), three rebounds, seven assists and six turnovers. A lot of that is on Harden’s own play and approach, but the Spurs’ defense and Simmons need plenty of credit too.

With 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, four assists and a steal, Simmons continued to assert himself as a key part of the next era of Spurs basketball. That is, if they can afford to keep him, H has earned a major pay rise from his bargain salary of $874,636 when he hits free agency this summer.

Patty Mills continued his momentum as well. After recording 20 points in Game 5’s victory, he finished with an efficient outing in Game 6, recording 14 points with seven assists and one of the Spurs’ eight steals.

Even more impressive than Mills, though, was rookie Dejounte Murray. It’s easy to forget about Tony Parker’s absence when focusing on the blow of Leonard’s injury, but Parker being out, despite not nearly being the player he was in his prime, forced others to step up at point guard.

Murray did just that Thursday night. He played a playoff-high 23 minutes and made a terrific impact with 11 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block. He became only the fourth Spurs rookie in history — joining three legends in David Robinson, Tim Duncan and Leonard — to have a point and rebound based double-double in a playoff game. In only 23 minutes, that’s impressive.

While Murray has plenty of growing to do and will still make rookie mistakes, he played with energy, made some good reads with drive and kicks, made a handful of nice baskets and put his lengthy 6-foot-5 frame to good use to finish over smaller guards, cover the glass and be a pest on defense.

This was quite the highlight reel for a fairly inexperienced 20-year-old in a closeout playoff game. There were plenty of flashes of his potential, supported by a perfect situation to learn and grow in San Antonio and two-way potential to have a bright future. He was a game-high plus-33.

In addition to Murray’s steal in the first quarter and his block on 6–8 Trevor Ariza under the basket, this play in particular stood out to me when looking at Murray’s upside. He uses his length and reactions so well here to break up a pass early on, disrupt the offense, recover perfectly into the passing lane to Eric Gordon, and eventually come away with his second steal:

The Spurs handled the Rockets so much better after a couple of losses early in the series and their crushing defeat in Game 1. They went smaller more often (although in Game 6 their size by staying with Aldridge and Pau Gasol worked well as the pace slowed and they grabbed more offensive rebounds), tweaked their pick-and-roll coverage by dropping the big back into the paint, and generally learned how they need to rotate against a team with such powerful offense.

In Game 6, the Spurs’ defense was brilliant. The Rockets didn’t play a good game and Harden wasn’t remotely close to his best self, but nevertheless, it’s incredible that they shot a useless 28.6 percent. The Spurs worked together to make up for the loss of Leonard and made another statement as to why they led the league in defensive rating this season.

From Gasol using his length around the basket to the work of guys like Simmons, Danny Green and other guards at the perimeter, they smothered the Rockets, hurting them on 3-pointers and giving them constant troubles finishing at the rim. They had a mere 18 points in the paint to the Spurs’ 62. Which, for Mike D’Antoni’s offense that’s built on nothing but 3s and shots at the rim, is a problem. Plus, the Spurs bullied the Rockets on the boards, outrebounding them 60–37 with 14 offensive rebounds.

This was a nice example of how the Spurs help one another and work cohesively. Aldridge knows he can’t keep up with Ariza on a drive, but he also knows he can press him so tightly and force him off the line here because he can be reassured that David Lee is behind to help. Sure enough, Lee is there and the Spurs’ defense comes together with Manu Ginobili to take away the ball:

On this play, Simmons latches onto Harden around the faked screen from Ryan Anderson, and with Simmons and Kyle Anderson stopping Harden from going to his right, Harden needs to pass left. Mills knows this, anticipates the pass coming and snatches a steal for a quick layup:

On the following play, Simmons jumps on a pump fake from Ariza at the end before he turns around to contest, but this sequence still shows how well the Spurs switch around the court, rotate and help one another if a teammate is going to leave a shooter open.

You can see Aldridge force Patrick Beverley to drive baseline and Gasol fill up to the paint to stop a layup. Once Beverley sends the ball out, Mills contests Lou Williams, Green sees that and helps Mills out by covering Eric Gordon at the top of the arc, and Simmons then sprints over to Ariza. It’s hard to pass the ball around a defense that moves this well:

“Teamwork makes the dream work” isn’t a lie.

The Spurs’ Game 6 victory — one that came without their best player at both ends, on the road, against a possible MVP on a 55-win team, by 39 (!) points — is one of the best wins you could hope to see in the playoffs. It shouldn’t have happened. Yet everyone across the roster rose to the occasion and Gregg Popovich continues to lead a team that won’t stop winning.

The Spurs’ dual big-man lineup in the age of small ball, against one of the ultimate small, perimeter-based opponents, shouldn’t have been so successful. Their supporting cast and role players shouldn’t have been able to overcome Leonard’s absence so well at both ends of the floor. Their maintenance of such selfless, locked-in, communicative two-way basketball without their anchor at both ends shouldn’t have been so easy. They made a dominating performance with 32 assists on their 51 baskets (53.1 percent shooting) look effortless.

But that’s what the Spurs do. They beat the odds and exceed expectations year after year, game after game, setback after setback. Game 6, with so much against them, should be one of the defining victories in their history. Even though it didn’t decide a championship, it couldn’t exemplify what the team is about any more.

Party hard, San Antonio. You’ve more than earned it before the Golden State nightmare begins.