HOUSTON -- The San Antonio Spurs experienced Game 1 Groundhog Day in succumbing to a blistering night from range on Sunday, as the Houston Rockets evened this Western Conference semifinals series 2-2 by virtue of a 125-104 triumph.
"They did a great job, and our defense was pretty defective," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "I thought they drove it with purpose, found people, and we started the game really without an edge and getting beat in transition again, like we did in Game 1."
But after that disastrous outing, in which the Rockets knocked down 22 of 50 shots from 3-point range to set an NBA postseason record for the most 3s attempted and made against San Antonio, the Spurs switched up the way they defended the pick-and-roll.
It seemed the Spurs had finally solved their issues defending Houston's long-range marksmanship in Games 2 and 3 by keeping their perimeter defenders on the Rockets shooters at all times. San Antonio wanted to continue to employ the tactic in Game 4.
They tried. Then, they failed.
"They came out and they played like it was a big game for them," said LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting. "They pushed it at us more than they did the other game and caught us in transition. We have to communicate better and make sure we get to the shooters better. We got caught in the middle trying to find guys and not really talking tonight. You just have to try to control the ball more, control the drives to the basket, have weakside rotation. We have to rotate on the back side and find the shooters."
Houston started off the game on a 12-4 run and extended the lead to 15 points with 4:01 left in the opening quarter on a steal and dunk in transition from Nene. The play only embodied San Antonio's major issue early on in Game 4: its inability to guard in transition. Houston connected on 7 of 11 field goals for 15 points in transition in Game 4, but 13 of those points came during the Rockets' first-quarter blitz.
In the first quarter alone, the Spurs surrendered just as many points in transition as all of Game 2 and more than they gave up in all of Game 3 (seven points in transition). In Game 1, San Antonio allowed 28 points in transition.
"For us, you know, our Bible begins with transition defense," Popovich said. "If it's not there, we're just not ready to go. If you'd have seen the clips of our transition defense, you would have traded all the players and fired me by the end of the game. It was that bad. But they were intense and they were that focused and they were that professional. And we were not."
In falling by 21 points in Game 4, San Antonio -- for the first time since the 2001 Western Conference finals against the Lakers -- has dropped multiple games by 20 points or more in a single postseason series. The Spurs suffered a 27-point loss to the Rockets in Game 1.
Perhaps they grew somewhat comfortable with their 2-1 lead over the first three games of the series.
Pau Gasol wouldn't rule out the possibility.
"You have to fight your instincts and really understand, when you have an advantage or an opportunity, you can bring extra focus to fight against complacency, instincts and feelings you might have," Gasol said. "You see what the Warriors and Cavaliers are doing in other series. They're playing with an edge. They're going out there every day and pretty much sweeping every team they're facing. It's something to keep an eye on. We want to be the same way. It's interesting how the mind works."
Meanwhile, it's devastating how Houston's 3-point shooting has worked in its victories over the Spurs in this series. The Rockets are 41-of-93 (44.1 percent) from range in their two victories in the series, and they're shooting 31.5 percent (23-of-73) in the defeats.
San Antonio's two most-used lineups -- the starters, with Dejounte Murray at point guard, and another group that includes the starters with Patty Mills at the point -- in this game allowed the Rockets to shoot 9-of-16 from range in 17 minutes.
"It's what they do. That shouldn't take us by surprise," Manu Ginobili said. "When you turn over the ball and take bad shots, they run at you and they take 3s. You've got to give them credit. That's what they do. I think we gave them a lot of opportunities to score those 3s. We were not as attentive and responsive as we were two days ago. They make you pay. They had more energy, they had more anger because of what happened the previous game. They were more ready to play this game."
Houston shot a total of 21 uncontested 3-pointers in Game 4 and drained 11 of them. On contested 3s, the Rockets made just 36.4 percent (8-of-22). James Harden assisted on seven of the 11 uncontested connections from deep but also knocked down half of his contested 3s (4-of-8).
Now the Spurs find themselves planning to approach Tuesday's Game 5 in San Antonio like it's the last in this series. After all, the Game 5 winner goes on to win the series 83 percent of the time (162-34), according to research from ESPN Stats and Information.
"Game 5 is a Game 7," Ginobili said. "We had a great opportunity today to go back to San Antonio 3-1 and in a better situation. Now it's 2-2. Game 7. We've really got to be knowing that every possession is a game-winning possession. They are going to make 3s in three straight possessions here and there. We've got to create situations where those 3s are not that open, we guard the one-on-ones better, and a lot of things.
"Every possession counts," Ginobili added. "We started a little slow and had many letdowns during the game that are not allowed to happen."