After both sides took care of business in the first round, the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets are set to lock horns in the Western Conference semifinals. As the best two teams in the league that didn’t have Kevin Durant join them last summer, the Texas-based sides dominated all season as polar opposites. These franchises have been fated to face off in the postseason for much of the year, pitting a stout defense against one of the league’s best offenses of all-time.
Just as James Harden defeated one of his competitors for MVP honors last round, he’ll be asked to take down the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard next. Although the Spurs took the regular season series with a 3-1 record, the Rockets have the offensive firepower to outpace any team on a given night.
But can they do it four times against Gregg Popovich and the No. 1 ranked defense in the league?
#2 — San Antonio Spurs
The more things change, the more they stay the same — and, once again, the Spurs are a great basketball team. Leonard is the best two-way player in the NBA and Popovich continues to prove his case as one of the best coaches in league history. Flanked by the aging-but-playoff-worthy future Hall of Famers in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the typically steady play of LaMarcus Aldridge and long-range threats in Danny Green and Patty Mills, the Spurs have a well-constructed roster. And, as most Spurs teams go, it’s one that is suited for another deep postseason run.
Yet, the Spurs had their hands full in their 4-2 series victory over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. Of course, the Grizzlies have long been a tough playoff out, but San Antonio collectively had no answer for Mike Conley. The Memphis point guard averaged 24.7 points and 7.0 assists as he wreaked havoc on the Spurs’ top-rated defense (100.9 points per-100-possessions allowed in the regular season).
Yes, Patrick Beverley is no Conley, that’s for sure, but the bulldog defender had quite the series against the Oklahoma City Thunder and may relish the opportunity to go against Parker and Mills instead of Russell Westbrook for 35 minutes a game. Look for the Spurs to go to Aldridge as much as possible in this series, as he’ll be most often guarded by Ryan Anderson or another smaller player. While Anderson isn’t a sieve defensively, he’s far more suited to collecting rebounds and hanging out on the perimeter than banging in the post.
Aldridge struggled at times against Memphis, shooting just 3-for-8 in Game 2 and then 5-for-13 in Game 5. If Aldridge can get that wonderful mid-range and post-up game cooking right away, it’ll open up the rest of the floor against the 18th-ranked Houston defense.
However, the Spurs’ crème de la crème is the aforementioned Leonard, the soft-spoken lockdown defender that Popovich called the best player in the league after they eliminated the Grizzlies on Thursday. With Leonard dedicating most of his on-court time to defending the opposing team’s superstar (sorry, James), the Spurs ranked second in opponent points per game in 2016-17 — a feat they’ll need to replicate against the (usually) unconscious shooting of the Rockets.
Harden, for the most part, slogged through the series with the Thunder, hounded constantly by Andre Roberson, a legitimate contender for some NBA All-Defensive honors. In Games 4 and 5, Harden shot a combined 13-for-41 from the floor, but his free throw shooting was often enough to propel the Rockets to victory. The bearded MVP candidate loves to draw fouls — as many Thunder players found out the hard way — but particularly so out on the perimeter. If Leonard can limit those cheap, free points for the Rockets’ star, the pressure will fall firmly on his supporting cast to pick up the slack, something that ran hot and cold in the first round.
Leonard averaged a healthy 28.5 points, 5 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 50 percent shooting in the Rockets and Spurs’ four regular season matchups — can he carry the load offensively while frustrating Harden for four quarters? The Klaw is, by far, the most compelling storyline headed into this juggernaut showdown between contrasting styles.
#3 — Houston Rockets
For the Houston Rockets and all the pre-series bluster about their historically great three-point shooting, their cast of characters came up short against the Thunder. The Rockets, who averaged 14.4 made three-pointers on 35.7 percent during the regular season, saw their numbers from deep plummet through the six hard-fought contests. Overall, Houston went 48-for-170 on three-pointers in the series (28.2 percent) but that’s a total that you’d expect to rise, even against San Antonio.
Even then, however, the Rockets still found other ways to win, dispelling the lower-seeded Thunder in a slew of unexpected ways. From Beverley’s inspired play to the unexpected bench flurries from Lou Williams, somebody new was there to step up alongside Harden each night. All series, the Rockets took advantage of quality mismatches against Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Taj Gibson as Harden picked apart the defense time and time again. If there’s a semblance of consistent improvement from the likes of Anderson, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza, then the Rockets will like their odds to hang tough with the Spurs.
Anderson, in particular, can only go up after a poor 13-for-39 showing in five games against the Thunder. But while the usual suspects traded off on carrying the load behind Harden, it was the surprise contributions of Nene that pushed the tightly-contested series in their favor. Nene averaged just 9.1 points per game in the regular season, but surpassed that mark in three games against Oklahoma City, including his masterful 28-point and 10-rebound effort on 12-for-12 shooting in Game 4. Against Pau Gasol, whose best defending days are well behind him, the Brazilian veteran should be a favorite to pitch in heavily off the bench once again.
Even with Leonard defending him, Harden should continue to put up some fantastic statistical lines, but he’ll need to be a little more efficient from the field at times as well. Harden attempted 73 free throws in just five games, something that a Popovich-coached team will assuredly look to cut down on in this series. Of course, Harden had his struggles with Roberson, just as he will with Leonard, but the Rockets love to get him switched onto a big or lesser defender at the top of the key.
Additionally, the Rockets are poised to get Sam Dekker back from a hand fracture he suffered in early April. Dekker hasn’t played in about four weeks, but his energy off the bench could be interesting should head coach Mike D’Antoni re-insert him into the shortened rotation the Rockets have generally worked with this postseason.
Harden will likely get his fill one way or another, but the series will hinge on getting more consistent performances from his teammates. Beverley’s energetic 21 points in Game 1 and 15 in Game 2 were huge reasons why the Rockets took their commanding lead in the series. On the flip side, however, he managed just one point in Game 3, a compelling argument for a big reason behind the Thunder’s sole win of the series. More often than not, the Rockets can get away with those nights against a team like Oklahoma City, but the well-oiled San Antonio machine is an entirely different beast.
Who Wins Game 1?
The Spurs struggled with their first round opponent more than the Rockets did, but they took three of four games from the in-state rivals during the regular season. Although their margin of victory in the three wins was by a total of 10 points, it’s enough to back Leonard, Popovich, three other Hall of Famers and the rest of the Spurs at home in Game 1.
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