Talk about culture. Talk about the idea of an organization being able to embody more than just a collection of players. Talk about legends that are made by players who don’t appear in commercials (outside of Texas at least) and embody a spirit that transcends the X’s, O’s, advanced analytics or tactical adjustments?
That’s how the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Houston Rockets in overtime 110-107 in Game 5 Tuesday night to take a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven series.
There were a million reasons for the Spurs to lose this game, that would have broken lesser teams. Tony Parker out. Kawhi Leonard. The Rockets getting up 48 3-point attempts. The Rockets had 21 fast-break points. The Rockets shot better from the field, the same from 3-point range, better from the free-throw line. It felt like a game where the Spurs had a lot go their way, and yet the Rockets just kept pulling in front. So many other teams break in that situation, without their superstar.
Not the Spurs.
There was Jonathon Simmons, a player who paid his own money to attend a D-League open tryout, locking down James Harden, putting up 12 points, including some tough finishes at the rim and defending James Harden.
There was Danny Green, a Cavaliers cast-off, hitting the key and-one to put the Spurs up.
And there was 39-year-old Manu Ginobili, the only member of the Spurs’ 2000’s-era Big 3 left, making play after play, includingin overtime.
“Manu reached back and gave us one of his Manu performances from past years,” Gregg Popovich said after the game. “He was a stud. We actually went to him with Kawhi off the court. We went to him to generate some offense and to make some things happen, and he did a good job whether it was distributing or scoring. He was big for us.”
And yet Ginobili shrugged off the praise from his coach, laughing at how a simple 12-point, five assists, 5-of-11 shooting night was lauded.
“I don’t feel like I had a huge game. I felt better than the last game,” Ginobili said.
“I guess the standards are a little lower,” he joked.
The final play of the game came down to, fittingly, a gamble. Ginobili, always known for stretching the limits of what Popovich would allow from any player in terms of risk management, leaped before Harden had even risen for a shot, blocking the shot and securing the win.
“I tried to bother him as much as I could and found myself very close to the ball. So I went for it. Very risky, it was a risky play. But it was risky to let him shoot, so I took my chances.”
Simmons, meanwhile, was rock solid once again. A player who started the season with a huge performance against the Warriors, has wavered in the rotation at times and shot 42 percent from the field, stepped up and has delivered big minutes, allowing the Spurs to play smallball and stay alive vs. the plethora of Rockets shooters.
“Jon is very athletic and he’s learning every day,” Popovich said after the game. In some ways, he’s a neophyte even though he’s a little older. He hasn’t really been in the program for a very long time and gotten minutes. This year he started to get pretty decent minutes and obviously in the playoffs he’s getting more. He’s somebody that’s important to us because he can go downhill. He can get by people, and make some things happen.”
“Defensively he’s come a long way,” Danny Green said. “He’s always aggressive but he was always that guy, foul-prone, getting a few cheap ones where he didn’t need to, and tonight, he was great, guarding Harden without fouling.”
Patty Mills, the backup point guard, with 20 points in his first playoff start. LaMarcus Aldridge, despite his struggles, finished with nine offensive rebounds. Green, who got almost no press, sinking big shots and guarding the Rockets’ ballistic guards on the other end. Answer after answer after answer. That’s what separates the Spurs from other teams, other organizations. They find ways through a collective spirit and will, where most teams would fail.
These playoffs are about dominating super teams overwhelming opponents with talent, but Tuesday night was a good reminder that sometimes, games are decided by the force of will of a team that always finds the answers it needs to. The game was close, the Rockets could have opened it up 100 times with made shots, and the Spurs wasted opportunities as well. It could have gone either way.
“It was like flipping a coin. It could have gone for either side, it just fell on our side,” Ginobili said.
That’s the thing with the Spurs. That coin seems to land on their side an awful lot.