The Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs begin their much-anticipated second-round clash Monday evening. Two MVP candidates will battle it out, with only one able to advance. Let’s take a look at how these two teams will match up in the latest edition of the ‘Battle of Texas’.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets Series Preview
Houston’s Offensive Brilliance
Houston scored at a historic rate during the regular season, finishing with one of the top 10 offenses in NBA history. Mike D’Antoni‘s offense revolves around taking the most efficient shots (three-pointers and layups) in high volume. Houston attempted an astounding 40 three-pointers per game during the regular season, nearly twice as many as San Antonio.
The conductor of Houston’s historic offense is MVP candidate James Harden. Harden embodies the Rockets’ style of play to a tee, excelling at drives to the cup and knocking down threes. Harden also finds ways to get his teammates open looks, which is reflected in his 11.2 assists per game average. While that total has shrunk to seven per game during the playoffs, Harden is still the unquestioned leader of this Rockets team. The Rockets will only go as far as he can take them.
One of the biggest X-factors for Houston is Nene Hilario. If he’s able to dominate against San Antonio’s frontline and score efficiently, that could significantly swing the series in Houston’s favour.
Kawhi Has Arrived for the Spurs
Harden may lead the Rockets on one end of the floor, but Kawhi Leonard is the anchor on both ends for San Antonio. The two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year has again led the Spurs’ league-best defense. On top of his defensive excellence, Leonard has taken massive strides on the offensive end. He averaged 25.5 points per game on 49 percent shooting during the regular season. Leonard’s scoring and efficiency numbers have increased thus far in the playoffs to 31.2 PPG and 55 percent, respectively. If he can sustain those numbers against the Rockets, they’ll have a tough time trying to contain him.
Leonard’s supporting cast is even better than Harden’s in Houston. LaMarcus Aldridge headlines San Antonio’s frontcourt, averaging 15 points and seven rebounds in six playoff games. In their first-round series against Memphis, Gregg Popovich shuffled Dewayne Dedmon and David Lee in the final starting frontcourt slot alongside Aldridge. Pau Gasol has fully embraced coming off the bench. While Gasol isn’t nearly the player he once was, he still provides veteran experience and knows how to pick his spots against his matchup.
The Spurs’ backcourt features an aging Tony Parker and sharpshooting Danny Green. Parker’s scoring resurfaced in the team’s first six playoff games (16 PPG), but Green has struggled, connecting on just 29 percent of his three-pointers. If Parker sustains his current level of play and Green finds his shot, it will go a long way in helping San Antonio keep up with Houston’s offensive attack.
What to Expect
Houston struggled to knock down three-pointers against Oklahoma City in the first round, converting on just 28 percent of them. If they had trouble scoring efficiently from the outside against the Thunder, the Spurs won’t make it any easier for them in that department. However, with efficient shooters like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and Patrick Beverley surrounding Harden, the Rockets have the ability to catch fire and simply out-shoot the Spurs in this series. Oh, and don’t forget Houston’s scoring spark-plug off the bench, Lou Williams.
Even if Houston’s shots aren’t falling, they can resort to what worked against Oklahoma City: driving to the rim with reckless abandonment and getting to the free throw line.
If the Spurs can neutralize Harden with Green or Leonard defending him, the Rockets could be in trouble. If Green successfully contains Harden, look for Leonard to defend other wings like Gordon and Ariza, while wreaking havoc all over the court. Slowing down Harden is no easy task, though, especially in a seven-game series.
I expect this series to go six or seven games. I think that Houston’s superior athleticism will be too much for the Spurs to handle. Then again, San Antonio has been doubted in the past and proven people wrong time after time. If the Spurs can limit the Rockets’ transition opportunities and dictate the pace of play, they’ll improve their chances significantly in this series.
March 03, 2016: San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dunks the ball during the NBA game between the San Antonio Spurs and the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)