SAN ANTONIO – James Harden went up for one last-second, last chance heave, but by then, it was too late.
One more time, as they had so often down the stretch, the Rockets had waited too long. When Manu Ginobili stuffed Harden’s final 3, the Spurs had a 110-107 overtime win and a 3-2 series lead.
The Rockets had the bad taste of how they let it all slip away with 83 percent of NBA teams that win Game 5 in a 2-2 best of seven series going on to win the series.
With the game on the line, the Rockets had stopped scoring. They stopped moving. They stopped attacking. With the game and the series lead at stake, they went into a slow-motion offense and invited the Spurs to catch them from behind.
The Spurs, given chance after chance, were not about to let so many opportunities slip away.
On the overtime possessions the Rockets attacked in overtime, Pat Beverley and Ryan Anderson put in 3-pointers, with Anderson giving the Rockets a lead with 43.6 seconds left.
But one possession after Danny Green had hit a 3-pointer, he beat James Harden off the dribble, driving to a left-handed finish and a three-point play for a 109-107 lead with 36.1 seconds remaining.
Again, the Rockets held the ball and worked for a 3-pointer. When Eric Gordon missed with 17.7 seconds remaining, the Rockets had to foul. Green pushed the lead to three, making one of two free throws.
The Rockets had to win a jump ball to get the last shot. It never got to the rim.
After searching for a 3-pointer to fall all night, Gordon nailed his first with 2:24 left in regulation putting the Rockets in front by five. Patty Mills immediately answered and after the Rockets turned the ball over, LaMarcus Aldridge posted up inside and tied the game with 97 seconds remaining.
The Spurs had chances to go in front with Kawhi Leonard missing in the lane and Aldridge coming up empty on a tip.
Harden was fouled and made both free throws, but the Spurs again answered, with Ginobili driving to tie the game with 34.5 seconds remaining.
With that, the Rockets wanted one shot for the win. Tied in the final minute, they had the ball and possibly the game and series in James Harden’s hands. Harden never got a shot off. He ran the clock down before he had few options left, pushing off on Jonathan Simmons for an offensive foul with 11.1 seconds left.
The Spurs did as little with their last possession, with Pau Gasol never setting the screen Patty Mills expected and Mills failing to get his shot off on time.
Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, who turned his left ankle in the fourth quarter, was not on the floor for the final possession or overtime, having scored 22 points with 15 rebounds in 38 minutes.
The Rockets spent the second half getting the open looks they crave, but could not get enough to fall to hold off the Spurs or to pull away when they regained the lead midway through the fourth quarter.
When Harden returned to the floor, with 7:56 left, he had scored just three second-half points with the Spurs getting the ball out of his hands and the Rockets missing many of the 3s he set up. He drew a foul and drove to hit a floater, putting the Rockets back in front, 92-91. He set up Lou Williams on a drive for a three-point lead.
The Rockets, however, could not shoot well enough to take advantage of the huge opening they had with the Spurs struggling badly on the other end.
The Spurs missed 12-consecutive shots between LaMarcus Aldridge buckets, but the Rockets could not make their 3s to pull away.
With the Spurs within one with four minutes left, the Rockets had gone 5 of 21 from the 3-point line in the second half.
With the Rockets starting their small lineup, replacing power forward Ryan Anderson with Eric Gordon to have Anderson available at backup center, the Spurs looked to post up Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge inside. They got some initial mileage out of that and led by nine early, but the Rockets went to their preferred mismatch on the other end.
From the opening minutes, the Rockets worked to get big man switches on to Harden – and Leonard off him – and give him the spacing to go to work. With Trevor Ariza often set the screens with quick rolls to the rim or back-pedals to the 3-point line, Harden got to work against San Antonio big men.
Harden drove the Rockets offense to their second 60-point first half of the series (the Rockets were 34-5 when scoring 60 in the first half) as the Rockets made 61.1 percent of their shots in the second quarter.
By halftime, Harden had 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists, leading both teams in all four categories. The Rockets were getting good looks around him. Their seven-man rotation showed no signs of the strain of making up for the absence of Nene’s strength with spacing and shooting.
They could not, however, build any breathing room, slowing down until the Spurs caught them from behind.