Spurs-Rockets Preview: Thoughts and Questions

With round one of the NBA playoffs officially over with, it’s time to turn our collective attention to the second round, where perhaps the most entertaining series will take place between the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.

As two of the NBA’s best three regular-season teams, each squad boasts an MVP candidate, an excellent supporting cast, and a phenomenal coach. The answers to these questions could ultimately determine the outcome of what should be a terrific series.

Who will guard the superstars?

This is fairly straightforward for the Rockets: Trevor Ariza should be the primary defender on Kawhi Leonard for the entire series. Mike D’Antoni will probably match Ariza’s minutes with Leonard’s, limiting the amount of time Kawhi is on the floor and Ariza isn’t. (Look for a now-healthy Sam Dekker to draw the assignment in those rare minutes.)

The Spurs have the unique luxury of two elite wing defenders in their starting lineup, and you can expect multiple guys to spend time on James Harden. Danny Green will most likely get the first crack at him, as he did in the regular season games between these two clubs. Green is big and quick laterally, and he gets over screens pretty well. Manu Ginobili and Jonathon Simmons might draw Harden for brief moments if neither Green nor Leonard is on the floor.

Kawhi is the best option on Harden—duh—and will probably get Harden in crunch time or when no other matchup works. But expending max effort on both ends of the floor for an entire game can wear down anyone, even robots.

How will the Spurs defend Houston’s pick-and-roll?

James Harden scored nearly 12 points per game out of the pick-and-roll this season, and that doesn’t even factor in the amount of times he set up his teammates for easy baskets. A two-man game involving Harden and another Rocket is a puzzle with no right solutions—only less wrong ones.

San Antonio tried a lot of different coverages against the action in the regular season, and they’ll do the same in the playoffs. In the last meeting between these teams, Houston targeted LaMarcus Aldridge in nearly every pick-and-roll they ran with him on the floor. Expect a lot of that in this series. Aldridge started that game on Anderson, and the Spurs initially countered the Harden/Anderson pick-and-roll by switching the action, putting Aldridge on an island with Harden:

Dewayne Dedmon is late helping on that play, and the Spurs get toasted. They later tried dropping back on the pick-and-roll, as David Lee does here, and having the on-ball defender fight over the screen:

But that’s a dangerous game. Giving Harden that long a runway to the basket allows him to build up steam for a layup or pull up for a jumper over a backpedaling giant; if the big steps up and gets beat, it creates a 5-3 in Houston’s favor.

Aldridge also spent a good chunk of time defending Trevor Ariza in that March 6th game while Leonard matched up with Anderson. Houston’s pick-and-pop becomes less dangerous with Ariza in Anderson’s place, as Ariza is a markedly less effective three-point shooter than Anderson.

With Ariza setting the screen, the Spurs hedged the pick-and-roll, giving Leonard or Green enough time to recover and get back to Harden:

Hedging is less risky with a less dangerous shooter setting the screen, and Leonard and Aldridge work together to obscure Harden’s passing windows while the other Spurs prepare to help off their man once a pass is thrown. The Spurs tried this multiple times in the second half of that game, and often, it simply resulted in Harden holding onto the ball and working one-on-one against Leonard or Green. That may be the least of all evils for San Antonio. (The Spurs could tray to trap those plays, though Harden is smart enough to jimmy his way out of those situations and create numbers advantages.)

In the first round, the Thunder elected to take away Houston’s threes out of the pick-and-roll, opting instead to concede Harden lanes to the basket. They got burned. But the Rockets are good enough to make you pay no matter what you do; take away those lanes with a help defender, and Houston’s role players are bombing away.

For as much strategy that goes into it, much of the Spurs’ success defending Harden in the pick-and-roll could come down to personnel. The Rockets will target San Antonio’s slow-footed bigs—like Aldridge and Lee—as much as possible, which could force Gregg Popovich to play smaller lineups, something he’s historically been reluctant to do. Speaking of which…

How will Popovich manage his frontcourt rotation?

Pop keeps a traditional center and a traditional power forward on the floor at nearly all times, which usually gives the Spurs an advantage in the rebounding and rim protection departments. That look worked against Memphis’ frontcourt of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but it could become a major weakness against the Rockets, who play a much faster and more perimeter-oriented game.

At least one of San Antonio’s bigs will have to guard on the perimeter against the Rockets. Not only is that a problem in containing the pick-and-roll, where Harden toys with overmatched big men, but in the slash-and-kick game as well. The Rockets are excellent attacking closeouts, and blow-bys past plodding brutes produce wide-open looks.

Dedmon becomes considerably more important against a team like the Rockets—and the Warriors, should San Antonio get that far—than against the Grizzlies because of his size and quickness. Pop has him on a short leash right now, but he’s the Spurs’ most agile big man, by far. He has the foot speed to at least contain the James Harden/Clint Capela pick-and-roll, he can switch onto guards, and he’s San Antonio’s best rim protector. Play him with Kawhi and three guards, and the Spurs become infinitely more switchable and far less exploitable on the defensive end.

Kyle Anderson has been in and out of the rotation all season, and he’s not the quickest defender, but he has value as a ball-handling and floor-spacing four. If Pop is hesitant to play Kawhi as a “four,” Anderson represents a nice alternative.

No matter what their positional labels within a given lineup, Green and Leonard will still be Harden’s primary defenders. The Spurs can mix and match defensive assignments from there, even if it includes hiding a point guard on a wing or forward.

Another advantage of playing small: it creates more space in which playmakers can operate. San Antonio’s spacing can get cramped with two non-shooters on the floor, and guys can double Leonard more easily when they don’t have to recover to a shooting threat.

Put Anderson or Davis Bertans in Lee’s spot there, and the floor becomes more open, and doubling Leonard is a much more difficult gambit. Tony Parker’s entire game is predicated getting into the lane and either scoring or dishing; in a crowded lane, he becomes less effective.

It seems unlikely, but there’s a chance the Rockets end up adjusting to the Spurs, instead of the other way around. If Aldridge is cooking in the post or San Antonio is gobbling up offensive boards, D’Antoni may be forced to stay with two bigs.

Who will control the pace?

These two teams both had incredibly successful seasons, but they did so in completely different ways. In addition to their contrasting philosophies on size, Popovich and D’Antoni have drastically different approaches to pace. The Rockets ranked third in the NBA in pace this season while San Antonio ranked 27th. Houston wants to run the ball down their opponent’s throat and get up as many shots as possible. The Spurs want to walk it up, run their sets, and work for the best shots possible. Keep an eye on which team the pace favors; in all likelihood that will be the team that controls the game.

Which team’s role players will step up?

The Harden vs. Kawhi battle will be a good barometer for the series, but the minutes with neither star on the floor could swing it.

The Spurs posted a robust plus-6.9 net rating in the regular season with Leonard off the floor, but that number plummeted to minus-13.9 in the first round. Kawhi was good enough to make that up against Memphis, but it will be hard for the Spurs to survive if that trend continues.

Aldridge didn’t shoot well against Memphis, but he quietly had a solid first round—he tried his ass off on defense and came up with timely offensive rebounds. Leonard has cannibalized a lot of LaMarcus’ touches, especially in the playoffs, and Aldridge doesn’t impact the game offensively the way he used to. But doesn’t and can’t are two different things. Aldridge is still capable of dominating a game and commanding double teams in the post, and the Spurs will probably need at least one of those games in this series. The advantage of playing big is the ability to bully fools down low, which Aldridge can do against the Rockets (though he struggled against them in the regular season).

Popovich has been taking Aldridge out a little bit earlier in the first quarter and putting him back in early in the second so that his minutes don’t overlap so much with Leonard’s. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him go right at Ryan Anderson early on in these games. The Spurs need Aldridge to be the clear-cut third-best player in this series.

The rest of the Spurs’ supporting cast was mercurial against the Grizzlies. Consistent outside shooting would go a long way in easing some of the burden from Leonard’s shoulders.

This feels like a series where Jonathon Simmons could play a big role. He’s athletic enough to hang with a very athletic Rockets team, and he’s theoretically a decent option to guard Harden. It’s unclear how much Pop trusts him, but he could be a key cog (on paper) in the Spurs’ small lineups.

Most of the Rockets’ role guys are only as good offensively as Harden makes them. But Eric Gordon and Lou Williams can create their own offense without the Beard, and will be relied upon heavily to win those minutes with Harden out.

The Rockets have a net rating of plus-7.6 with both Gordon and Williams on the floor and Harden off, and Williams owns a ridiculous 67.4 true shooting percentage in those 297 minutes. In the playoffs, Houston has been 19.4 points per 100 possessions better with Harden on the bench than with him on the floor, thanks in large part to Gordon and Williams. The minutes that pit those two against Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili will be fascinating.

We know what Beverley will bring: defensive harassment and all-out effort. It remains to be seen how long Nenê will stay hot, or if Clint Capela will be a major factor on either end. Having Dekker healthy again gives D’Antoni an extra combo forward to lean on when Ariza and Anderson rest.

Anderson was the odd man out in most of Houston’s closing lineups against OKC. He struggled from three-point range, he isn’t quick enough to guard wings masquerading as fours, and he’s susceptible to bullying on the block. But if the Rockets do end up adjusting to the Spurs and playing big lineups, Anderson will be instrumental.

Who will win?

Leonard and Harden will both have a game or two where they single-handedly carry their respective team to victory. In a toss-up like this, I’d usually pick the Spurs, but I trust the rest of the Rockets roster more right now, and I believe in Houston’s ability to space the floor and get easy shots. I’ll take the Rockets in seven, but it really could go either way. This will be a fun series—no matter what the outcome, I’m praying to the basketball gods for seven games of it.


Stats current as of April 30, 2017.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, and NBAwowy!

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