Basketball

BDL’s 2016-17 NBA Playoff Previews: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets

BDL’s 2016-17 NBA Playoff Previews: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets

Leonard thrice broke his own playoff scoring high, averaging 31.2 points on an otherworldly 71.5 percent true shooting for the series, to go along with six rebounds, 3.8 assists and a pair of steals per game. And he was somehow even better in fourth quarters. His most memorable stretch came while forcing overtime in Game 4, albeit in an eventual loss, but he was similarly dominant down the stretch of Game 6, reinforcing his season-long MVP case as the game’s most impactful two-way player.

Gregg Popovich might be biased, but he called Leonard “the best player in the league right now” after the series, and the Spurs coach doesn’t throw out such superlatives lightly. Whatever your game plan to stop the Spurs, it begins with trying to find ways to stop Kawhi Leonard offensively and not be stopped by him defensively, because he pairs a will to win with skill we haven’t seen since, well, Kobe.

San Antonio got a more surprisingly spry performance from Tony Parker, who the Spurs needed to kick it into high gear if they had hopes of navigating a Western Conference road blocked by All-Star point guards. In a throwback playoff performance, Parker averaged 16.3 points while not hindering San Antonio’s defense in 27.2 minutes a night against the Grizzlies. When paired with 10.2 points per game from backup Patty Mills, the Spurs packed a 48-minute point guard punch, especially since Parker and Mills combined to shoot a ludicrous 22-of-42 from 3-point range (52.4 percent) in the first round.

Beyond that trio, the Spurs got underwhelming efforts from the rest of the roster. Starting forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green, whose 14.8 and 5.8 points per game against the Grizz were well below their previous career playoff averages of 22.1 and 8.8, respectively. Likewise, 30-something veterans Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol and David Lee couldn’t find the same retro effort as Parker, and they looked spent before the first round even got into full swing. How the rest of the roster behind Leonard balances itself out going forward will go a long way toward determining San Antonio’s fate.

The Rockets are scoring 112.8 points per game in these playoffs, second only to the Golden State Warriors (119.5!), and here’s the scariest part for San Antonio: Houston only shot 28 percent from 3 in the first round — the worst mark of any playoff team and well below their season average (36 percent). Still, sharpshooting guards Eric Gordon, Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley were on their games against Oklahoma City, shooting an impressive 39 percent on 15 combined attempts from 3 per game.

It was MVP contender James Harden who struggled, as much as someone who averages 33.2 points, seven assists and 6.4 rebounds in a series can struggle. He shot 41 percent against OKC, including just 13-of-41 (32 percent) in Games 4 and 5 after rolling his ankle in Game 3. Harden has been rehabbing and treating his right ankle ever since, and he will have five days of rest before facing the Spurs.

Houston’s backcourt quartet carried the day, averaging 77.2 points all told against the Thunder and masking the series-long struggles of spot-up forwards Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza. Lineups featuring those two starters were outscored by 12.4 points per 100 possessions against Oklahoma City.

So long as the Rockets can get plus production from a handful of members in that eight-man rotation, they can score with anyone. Houston’s defense, despite looking better against a largely inept OKC offense, remains a serious question mark, outside of the ever-feisty Beverley hounding the perimeter.

The Southwest Division foes met four times during the regular season, and San Antonio won the series 3-1, although three of the clashes were decided by two points and the other was a six-point game.

They split a home-and-home on Nov. 9 and 12. Houston handed San Antonio its first of just 10 home losses all season, 101-99, as Harden dropped a triple-double (24 points, 15 assists and 12 rebounds) and Anderson added 20 points on 11 shots in the first meeting. Leonard countered with 34 points and seven rebounds, but the center combination of Gasol and Dewayne Dedmon was all but useless in this one, and the Spurs were without Parker, who was battling a sore right knee to start the season.

Three days later, San Antonio exacted retribution in Houston, 106-100. Parker scored 16 points and provided a steadying presence, as the Spurs put five players in double figures, including a team-high 20 from Leonard and a bounce-back effort by Gasol (15 points). That was enough to offset another Harden triple-double (25 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds) and 27 points off the bench from Gordon.

On Dec. 20, Mills snapped a 10-game Rockets win streak with a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds of a 102-100 Spurs win in Houston. Capela had just fractured his left fibula, so Nene started instead, and San Antonio’s bigs went wild, with Aldridge and Gasol both logging double-doubles. Harden and Leonard were productive as always, and the Rox got 10 points off the bench from second-year forward Sam Dekker, who will miss the playoffs after breaking his right hand in early April.

In their only post-trade deadline showdown, after Houston swapped Corey Brewer and a first-round pick for Lou Williams, Leonard did what the Spurs hope he can do throughout this series, out-dueling Harden and dominating the fourth quarter on both ends in a 112-110 victory. Kawhi punctuated the matchup by sinking a go-ahead 3-pointer with 25 seconds left and pinning Harden’s game-tying layup attempt on the next possession. Both teams saw balanced efforts from the rest of their rosters, and the two stars each finished with 39 points, but Leonard outscored Harden 17-4 in the fourth quarter.

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For San Antonio: Barring injury or rest, the Spurs started Parker, Green, Leonard and Aldridge — the holdovers from last season’s 67-win season — while making the switch from Gasol’s offense to Dedmon’s defense at center midway through the year. Both units won 75 percent of their games.

With Gasol, that group generated a 113 offensive rating in 392 minutes, just a hair shy of the league-leading Golden State Warriors (113.2) on the season. And with Dedmon, they owned a defensive rating of 97.4 in 257 minutes, which would easily rank as the NBA’s top defense if averaged over a full season. (As it was, San Antonio allowed a league-low 100.9 points per 100 possessions in the regular season.)

Popovich then split starts between Dedmon and Lee at center against the Grizzlies. Dedmon earned the first three starts against Memphis and made a grand total of one field goal. Pop switched to Lee after a Game 3 loss, and despite San Antonio’s OT loss in Game 4, he stuck with those guns for the rest of the series. The Spurs won Games 5 and 6, but Lee finished a minus-11 in in his three starts.

Gasol started the first three games against the Rockets during the regular season, before Dedmon started the fourth. Houston dominated San Antonio’s starting lineup with Gasol, outscoring the Spurs by 19.5 points per 100 possessions over 43 minutes in those three games. Dedmon didn’t fare much better with San Antonio’s customary starting quartet, finishing a minus-12 in an 11-minute sample size against the Rockets this season. Lee, however, was a plus-17 in 13 minutes with the starters opposite Houston, which might give us an indication of which way Popovich will lean in the second round.

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Nene does not find Danny Green’s celebration Hilario. (AP)

For Houston: When healthy, the Rockets start Beverley, Harden, Ariza, Anderson and Capela, and the playoffs were no different, despite three of those five struggling in five starts against the Thunder.

That group was stunningly efficient offensively during the regular season, scoring 122.7 points and beating opponents by 15.4 per 100 possessions over 505 minutes. This was a vital component of their 55-win season. The playoffs were an entirely different story, though, with Houston’s starters scoring only 81 points and losing by 24.8 per 100 possessions in 57 minutes against the Thunder.

The Rockets made the mistake of starting Brewer over Beverley early in the season, and Capela was injured for their third game against the Spurs, so their traditional starting lineup only started the final meeting on March 6. They outscored San Antonio by three in 14 minutes together, but that’s hardly an indication of how Houston’s starting lineup will fare against an even more stout defense than OKC.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City countered with its top defender, Andre Roberson, opposite Harden, to some success, and Leonard will also have to serve as that stopper. He likely won’t match up with Harden the whole game, because San Antonio can also throw Green at him, but there’s no doubt Leonard will assume that burden in the fourth quarter of close games. During the regular season, Kawhi helped hold Harden to just 39 percent shooting (2-of-11 from 3) in the fourth quarter.

Thunder center Steven Adams fared better against the roll man, helping his team hold the Rockets under one point per possession on lobs, but nobody on San Antonio — with the exception of Dedmon, who’s a proven offensive liability — is as capable of stymying Harden’s relentless pick-and-roll attack.

Houston scored 1.13 points per possession using the roll man this season and 1.02 per possession with the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, ranking third and fourth in the league, respectively. Neither Gasol nor Lee were all that effective defending the roll man in the regular season, and while Aldridge has improved in that regard since joining the Spurs, he’s never been considered a great defender.

You can bet Houston coach Mike D’Antoni will be hammering the pick-and-roll against all three San Antonio bigs, and when he finds a weak link, he will do it in hopes Popovich can’t play them, either.

If the regular season is any indication, this could be where the Spurs gains an edge, since they held Houston to 29.2 percent shooting from three in their four meetings — well below their season average.

The X-factor for the Rockets may be Anderson, who was a non-factor in the first round, making just three of his 24 3-point attempts against OKC. He shot 35 percent on five threes per game against the Spurs this season, and 40.4 percent on seven attempts a night as a stretch four during the regular season. It’ll be hard for any of San Antonio’s bigs to keep up with him on the perimeter, so Pop might have to counter with smaller lineups, which could benefit the Spurs in the long run. It’s a delicate balance.

Oh, and defense, defense, defense.

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So we meet again. (AP)

Of course, anyone who watched the 2014 NBA Finals knows Pop is capable of scripting some beautiful offensive basketball himself.  San Antonio averaged 8.1 fewer points per game than Houston during this first round, but the Spurs are currently the most efficient offense in the playoffs, scoring 116.8 points per 100 possessions, while operating at the league’s slowest pace. This is wild and free vs. calm and collected, so there’s a little something for all you crazy cats and super chill folk out there.

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