Welcome to the first heavyweight clash of the playoffs, featuring two of the league's four best teams -- and a delightful boardroom-to-hardwood contrast: Houston's unabashed 3-point chaos machine against the stodgy, slow-poke Spurs who kill by a thousand stops and midrange shots.
Houston aims to entertain, and its GM, Dork King Daryl Morey, campaigned rather baldly for his star to win Most Valuable Player. Gregg Popovich turns up his nose at the entire idea of individual awards, and your enjoyment of Spurs basketball falls somewhere below tonight's wine selection on his priority list.
Let's dig into the questions that will decide the series.
Is James Harden healthy?
The Spurs are structured to beat Houston. Only two teams allowed fewer 3-point attempts, and San Antonio opponents shot just 34.4 percent from deep -- fifth lowest in the league. In four head-to-head meetings, Houston's shot selection shifted away from the MoreyBall areas, and into the abhorred midrange. It was a small shift, maybe four or five shots per game, but that can swing a series between great teams. Houston made just 29 percent of its 3s against the Spurs.
The Spurs take care of the ball, and Popovich mandates airtight transition defense. Houston will not feast on cheap scramble points.
The Spurs do not foul. They have their own MVP candidate who bails them out when everything else stalls.
What the Rockets have: the unceasing, unyielding James Harden, the ultimate puzzle-solver, designed to exploit the few soft spots in the league's stingiest defense. If his ankle is healthy after five days off, the Rockets have a chance. If he's limited, they don't.
Harden and Kawhi Leonard can't play the full 48, and the Rockets have looked stronger of late with their star on the bench. They outscored Oklahoma City while Harden rested, in large part because Russell Westbrook also sat a lot of those minutes. The Spurs died against Memphis without Leonard.
But none of that matters if Harden isn't ready to destroy.
How does San Antonio defend Harden's pick-and-roll game?
This is where you can see openings for the Rockets. If the Spurs sit back, invite Harden to drive, and stick close to Houston's army of shooters, do their big men have any shot at containing Harden around the basket? David Lee and Pau Gasol probably don't. They will suffer Enes Kanter moments.
Lee supplanted Dewayne Dedmon in the starting lineup against Memphis, but the Spurs will need Dedmon's mobility and rim protection in this series. It wouldn't shock me if they started him again.
When they switched big men onto Harden in the regular season, he roasted them:
They'll try trapping Harden, and forcing him to pass to Clint Capela and Nene around the 3-point arc -- daring them to make plays. Harden has seen that before, and none of the San Antonio bigs have the wheels to contain him in open space for extended stretches.
San Antonio has no foundational answer, so they will mix in everything. That includes a continuous toggling of matchups. Danny Green will likely start on Harden, with Leonard taking over here and there.
But both San Antonio wings spent a surprising amount of time guarding Ryan Anderson in the regular season. The Spurs stashed LaMarcus Aldridge on Trevor Ariza, and slotted their centers on Capela and Nene. The goal was obvious: vaporize the Harden-Anderson pick-and-pop by switching it. If Harden waved Ariza up for screens as a way of yanking Aldridge into the play, so be it: Aldridge is mobile enough to help and recover onto Ariza, and Ariza is Houston's least threatening partner for Harden. If he beats you making plays like this, you tip the proverbial cap:
That alignment creates a bundle of cross-matches that persist over to the other end if the Spurs get a stop. Anderson might be stuck guarding Leonard, a laughable mismatch. Aldridge can bully Ariza in the post, and the Spurs will need more from Aldridge than they got against Memphis. If the Rockets try to normalize the matchups as the teams change ends, it will be a serious test of their shaky transition defense.
Aldridge-on-Ariza is an intriguing gambit. But it also entices Houston to have its centers screen for Harden, and that drags San Antonio's weaker bigs onto center stage:
That might be workable with Dedmon. It's rickety with Gasol or Lee. Those guys need more help, and that means more open shooters for Harden to pick out.
There is a school of thought among rival executives that the best strategy against Houston might be a normal-ish scheme that encourages above-the-break 3s: corral Harden around the foul line, stick to corner shooters, send help toward Harden/Capela from higher on the floor, and let Ariza, Anderson, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, and Patrick Beverley chuck semi-contested long 3s.
That is easier in theory than practice, especially with ground-bound dudes like Gasol and Lee in the middle. They might not be able to corral Harden at all; he could live at the rim. Dipping in from above the arc to bump Capela and scurrying back out to shooters is a trek. A lot of those 3s will be open, and when the foundation crumbles -- and it will crumble against Harden -- you still give up some corner bombs.
The Spurs could simplify and have Aldridge defend Anderson. Aldridge managed that matchup well in the past, but he has lost maybe a quarter of a step from his peak. Chasing Anderson could tire him out.
I wonder whether the Spurs might be better off shuffling this way: stick Aldridge on Capela/Nene, keep a wing on Anderson, and hide their centers on Ariza.
They will try lots of stuff, including tactics they've never used. You know Popovich has cards to play.
But Harden has counters for everything. Expect to see some Harden-Beverley pick-and-rolls to prey on Tony Parker and Patty Mills. Houston would also do well to run Harden through some picks before he gets the ball. He is unguardable with a head start and a few feet of separation -- a crisis that requires extra help off shooters.
How much small ball will we see?
Houston's best lineups of late have featured Ariza at power forward. The Spurs have the size to punish those groups, but that hasn't deterred Houston from busting them out against San Antonio's double-big lineups -- even though that comes with a hard choice: Ariza has to either defend a Spurs big, taking him off Leonard, or an even smaller player gets that unpleasant task.
That player is usually Harden. The Rockets really have no other option beyond Ariza to guard Leonard. Two years ago, the Clippers got away with smaller guys and blah defenders on him. Those days are over. Kawhi will go Keyser Soze on your whole team. Ariza staying out of foul trouble is a must.
Defending bigger guys brings out Harden's rugged side. He actually tries. You don't mind him on Lee or Dedmon, even if it risks some pain on the glass. Do you want him jostling with Gasol or Aldridge? Maybe you do, if the trade-off is one of those behemoths chasing a Houston shooter on the other end.
The Spurs can (and will) flip this entire dynamic. Perhaps this is the moment Popovich has been waiting for to unleash Leonard as a small-ball power forward -- with Aldridge at center -- in faster lineups that switch across more pick-and-roll combinations. The Spurs went this way more against Houston than against any other team.
No San Antonio small-ball lineup logged more than 23 minutes for the season, and that one was the Spurs' 37th-most-used five-man group. Against Houston, only three lineups played more. Three small-ball groups were among Popovich's dozen most-used against the Rockets, per NBA.com.
Popovich does not want to play small in general. None of the coaches on his tree do. Going small requires more minutes from Manu Ginobili, Jonathon Simmons, and Kyle Anderson -- and maybe more of the Mills-Parker combo that closed games against Memphis. (Simmons looms as an important player.) Look at those names. The Spurs are not built to go small. It is not a method of getting their five best players on the floor, as it is for most teams that do it.
But they will probably need to in this series. When threatened in past playoffs, the post-2010 Spurs have always downsized -- usually by swapping Tiago Splitter out for Boris Diaw, a big man on defense with perimeter skills on offense.
The Rockets have a ready response they've already used against San Antonio: go even smaller, slide Anderson to center, and put four outside shooters around Harden. Good freaking luck.
The Spurs will score a lot in a small-versus-small battle, too. Anytime you put Anderson at center, you are basically forfeiting defense. But this feels like a game-within-a-game Houston can win.
One wild card: Davis Bertans as an in-between option -- a new, 3-point gunning Diaw. Popovich trusted him in Games 5 and 6 against Memphis, and Bertans looked comfortable in the postseason hothouse. If Sam Dekker is healthy, he could play a similar role for Houston.
Is Houston's defense ready for this?
Most of Houston's defenders had an easy job against Oklahoma City: ignore the terrible shooter you're guarding, and crash on Westbrook's drives. The Spurs, even bigger and slower iterations, represent a wake-up call for a mediocre defense that slips way too often into negligent inattention. This is like a baseball team facing Jamie Moyer one day, and peak Dwight Gooden the next. Remember what San Antonio did to an unprepared, haughty Thunder team in Game 1 of this round last season?
This is Leonard's show now. He eviscerated Memphis almost by himself. The Spurs have set 18.5 ball screens per game for him in the playoffs, a huge jump from their regular-season average of 11.5, per STATS SportVU data. The Rockets have shown they will trap him -- testing Leonard's handle, and coaxing passes to plodding screeners in open space:
That's all well and good, but the Spurs ping the ball around until you crack. Houston cracks, a lot. The Rockets are lazy getting back on defense in the first place, though the danger of Westbrook had them on high alert. Harden turns into a corpse along the baseline, yielding embarrassing backdoor cuts and offensive rebounds. Anderson is soft and slow. Get Houston scrambling, and its rotations are hit or miss. One mistake against San Antonio -- one late read, two guys rotating to the same place -- and you are toast.
The Rockets won't be on point every time. It is not in them. They have too many bad defenders. But their best lineups are feisty. They can lock in on enough possessions to win.
A good barometer: how cleanly Houston helps on San Antonio post-ups. Leonard took just three shots out of the post against Houston in the regular season, per Synergy. Expect more. Aldridge will lick his chops against Ariza and Anderson, though Anderson is stout on the block; he handled Aldridge better than Capela. Houston will sometimes flip-flop matchups so that its centers take Aldridge. Nene is best against him. The Rockets will need peak Nene again -- on defense, and as a playmaking outlet when the Spurs trap Harden.
When opponents post up, Harden turns all the way around to watch the action, oblivious to his man skittering free:
That can't happen anymore. If Houston doubles, everyone has to rotate to the right places at the right times.
Can Aldridge get some buckets?
Leonard cannot win this series alone. Aldridge will have more chances on the block against favorable matchups. Parker needs to hit a decent share of jumpers; the Rockets will abandon him to clog other action, including open Aldridge pick-and-pops:
The superstars draw eyeballs. The secondary players may decide the series. Gordon and Williams were huge in the first round, and there will be times when Mills or Parker has to guard one of them. Green and Ginobili flat-lined against Memphis, forcing Popovich to improvise on the wing; Mills and Parker shared the floor for 18 minutes over six games after logging just 24 minutes together the entire regular season, per NBA.com.
Popovich can play them together against the Williams-Beverley combo, and perhaps even Williams-Gordon, but that is not Plan A.
Can either team carve out an edge on the glass?
Both were unremarkable rebounding teams in the regular season, though the Spurs (as usual) were much more thorough cleaning the defensive glass. Both amped up their offensive rebounding in the first round. Aldridge hunted second chances more aggressively than usual in the last half of the Memphis series, and he'll have a size advantage for some of this one.
Anderson will, too, when the Spurs attach a wing to him. He has long been a voracious, burrowing offensive rebounder against mismatches. The Spurs leave themselves vulnerable when they switch a big man onto Harden 25 feet from the basket.
This is a toss-up. Two great teams, each with leverage points over the other: San Antonio's structural advantages (plus home court) against Houston's fast, relentless pick-and-roll attack. I went back-and-forth for days. A short series is the only outcome that would surprise.
Houston has speed, scoring punch, and a singularly brilliant superstar tailor-made to pick at San Antonio's rare design flaws. Rockets in 6.