Rockets 103, Mavericks 94 (Houston wins series, 4-1)

This series might have been much closer than one would think in a gentleman’s sweep, but the Rockets earned their first playoff series victory for the first time since 2009 thanks for a dominant performance from their three best players.

James Harden (28 points, 8 assists, +16) played a complete game, remaining in control of his team’s pace and offense throughout the night. Many different “x-factors” and “difference makers” can take credit for the Houston’s Game 5 and series win. However, Harden gave the Rockets something the Mavs simply don’t have right now in a legitimate MVP candidate. He was the best player on the floor every game.

Another main reason this series didn’t last any longer than five games was due to the reemergence of Dwight Howard (18 points, 19 rebounds, 4 blocks, 4 steals). No longer did his knees seem to be holding him back. D12 looked as healthy, strong and dominant as his Orlando days. By putting up a line of at least 18 points, 18 rebounds, 4 steals and 4 blocks, Howard became just the second person in NBA history to post those numbers in a playoff game. Tyson Chandler (11 points, 6 rebounds) did everything he could to contain the big man, but when only one other teammate—Al-Farouq Aminu (14 points, 9 rebounds, 5 steals)—was playing strong defense on a consistent basis, there was only so much D from Dallas.

The Rockets jumped out to an early 31-22 first quarter lead thanks to strong play from Josh Smith (who finished with 20 points, 8 rebounds, 7-12 from the field). He still might be unable to make his free throws, but he is seemingly doing everything else right at the moment (yes, even making threes). He scored eight points in each of the first two quarters, using his speed when Dirk Nowitzki (22 points, 14 rebounds) guarded him and his size when Dallas threw smaller guys at him.

For the Mavs, their two best players failed to find their shot for more than a couple jumpers in a row. Right when it felt like Nowitzki or Monta Ellis (25 points, 7 assists, 4 steals) might be getting into a groove, one of them would clank a pull-up jump shot or miss a wide open look. Dirk started the game 2-11, even getting good looks in the process. These two combined to score 47 points on 49 shots. Dallas as a team shot 38 percent from the field and 5-26 (19.2 percent) from deep. When playing the high-octane Rockets, it is almost impossible to win a game with those type of offensive numbers.

The Mavs, though, yet again found themselves in this one down the stretch. Dirk and Ellis played a key role in keeping their team close, and they were only facing an 88-85 deficit with 5:19 to go in the game. The continued grind from Aminu carried this team at times, injecting a spark into the Mavericks. The Wake Forest product gave the Mavericks vital qualities simply absent elsewhere on the roster: youth, length, defense and off-ball movement all in one player. But with JJ Barea (6 points, 9 assists, 3-12 from the field) cooling off from Game 4, Aminu’s hustle and fight wasn’t enough to put Dallas over the edge. Terrence Jones (15 points, 5 rebounds) was another reason the Rockets staved off Aminu and the Mavs, as the Houston forward scored 10 of his 15 points in the final quarter. Jones, Howard and Smith all played a major role in helping Houston outscore Dallas 52-36 in the paint.

This might have been a close game throughout, but the Rockets were simply the deeper, more talented team. And now they have the chance to play the Spurs or Clippers in the second round of the playoffs. They will need to start playing much better defense on the road if they hope to make it to the Western Conference Finals. And shoot better than 19-36 (52.8 percent) from the free throw line.

For Mark Cuban and the Mavericks, things don’t get any easier this offseason. Dallas has only notched four playoff victories the past four seasons since the championship run, so obviously the current process is not working. Cuban has overhauled a big chunk of his roster every single offseason or season (remember the Lamar Odom era?), creating a lack of any sort of continuity year to year. Should the Mavs persuade Ellis to opt in to the final year of his contract? Can Chandler Parsons get back to his healthy self or even Rockets self? Is it time to slide Nowitzki into a sixth man role? Could the team actually sign a marquee free agent? LaMarcus Aldridge possibly?

Whatever direction Cuban and Donnie Nelson decide to take this franchise, there is no doubt it will be yet another busy offseason with many transactions. And as long as Dirk is still in the picture, they will undoubtedly stay firm in attempting to build a contender for the near future.

—Jay Wallis

Spurs 111, Clippers 107 (San Antonio leads series, 3-2)

It was 88-85 Clippers with 10 minutes left in the game, and the differences in the two teams’ body languages were striking. The Clippers were playing with fury. Chris Paul was pounding the ball as he prowled up the court, screaming at everyone from the officials to his own teammates and flopping recklessly. Doc Rivers was bellowing at the refs, angry at several close calls that went against the Clippers. The Staples Center crowd was electric, pushing the Clippers on through fourth quarter fatigue as the team went on an 18-8 run to take the lead. Meanwhile, San Antonio was playing as if it was a Tuesday game in March. There was no extra intensity, just perfect passing, a hefty dose of Tim Duncan, flawless execution and typical Spurs basketball.

And in the end, the energy got the best of the Clippers. Los Angeles imploded down the stretch, making mental error after mental error en route to a heartbreaking 111-107 loss in Game 5.

With just over five seconds left, and San Antonio up 108-107, Blake Griffin drove to the rim for a contested layup; the ball rolled around the rim and appeared like it was going to go in, but DeAndre Jordan tipped the ball in while it was above the cylinder. The referees ruled it basket interference and gave San Antonio the ball back with 4.9 seconds left. Danny Green was immediately fouled with 4.1 seconds left. He made the first free throw, then missed the second. But thanks to a huge mistake by Austin Rivers, who completed failed to box out the shooter, the Spurs got the rebound and held on to win.

“It was a dumbass play, you can’t blame anybody but me,” Jordan said of the basket interference after the game, while sitting, devastated, at his locker.

Things were looking good for the Clippers early. They jumped out to a 27-13 lead behind very tough D and an 11-0 run. DeAndre Jordan also did this:

Then the Spurs got hot behind some key three point shooting from Patty Mills and a 3-2 zone, and after battling back it was 54-53 at the half.

In the third quarter, San Antonio slowed things down all the way by repeatedly fouling Jordan, during a particularly brutal stretch of play that seemed to go on forever. Jordan would eventually go 7-16 from the free throw line, and the Clippers were victimized by a number of questionable calls, including a phantom basket interference call on Matt Barnes and a seemingly ridiculous travel on Blake Griffin while he went up for a dunk and clearly took only two steps.

In the fourth, both teams continued to go at it, with the Clippers’ frenzy counterbalanced by the Spurs’ mechanical pace. Chris Paul was attacking the paint constantly, dropping Danny Green with this nifty move:

Boris Diaw hit a huge corner three-pointer to extend the Spurs’ lead to 103-96 with three minutes left. The Clippers then went on a 5-0 run thanks to a Chris Paul 3-point play and a lob to DeAndre Jordan, which set the stage for another devastating ending for the Clippers. The Spurs dominated from behind the arc, where they shot 47.8 percent while holding the Clippers to only one made three-pointer the entire night. Blake Griffin (30 points, 7 assists, 14 rebounds) led all scorers but was terrible in the fourth quarter. He was 1-for-9 with 3 turnovers and 2 missed free throws in the quarter, and played 41 minutes in the game. DeAndre Jordan (21 points, 14 rebounds) thrived in the paint, but had another bad game at the free throw line, going 7 for 16. Chris Paul (19 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds) was everywhere, but this is another heartbreaking defeat to add to his growing collection. He also had an absolutely brutal technical with 4 minutes left in the game for giving a chest pass to an official after a made Spurs basket in the 4th quarter. Seriously they gave him a technical in the fourth quarter of a must-win game for THIS:

For the Spurs it was an all-around effort. Tim Duncan (21 points, 4 assists, 11 rebounds) led the way, but San Antonio got major contributions from Kawhi Leonard (18 points, 3 assists, 9 rebounds), Patty Mills (13 points, 4 rebounds) and Boris Diaw (10 points, 7 rebounds) who was absolutely huge down the stretch, hitting a big three to extend the Spurs lead to 103-96 and also hitting a borderline impossible shot to beat the shot clock buzzer.

Now the Spurs lead 3-2, and are headed home with a chance to close out the series. This is the Clippers’ second absolutely crushing loss in this series. Can they recover? We’re about to find out.

—Russell Simon