With the Spurs escaping the Memphis Grizzlies, they will face off against the Houston Rockets for the first time since 1995. Houston absolutely torched the one man Oklahoma City Thunder, and now have to face up against their Texas rival. The Rockets are a polar opposite to the Grit n’ Grind Grizzlies, and San Antonio will need to adapt accordingly to make this series work in their favor. Will D’Antoni finally defeat Popovich in the modern NBA? Will Harden have a Western Conference rematch against the Warriors? And Will Kawhi make his name even greater this season? Here are three key factors that will determine the outcome of this series.
1. Bench Play
The first factor that most fans tend to forget about is bench productivity. The Spurs would likely be slogging it out in a 7th game if it wasn’t for Patty Mills lighting it up from three in game 5, and the Rockets would probably be playing more than 5 games if Lou Williams didn’t provide a scoring output in his bench role. The benches for both teams are incredibly vital to their success, and this is why this will be one of the most exciting second round matchups this season.
Lou Williams is a professional scorer along with Eric Gordon, and Patty Mills is one of the best towel wavers and three-point specialists available in the playoffs right now. Dedmon can go toe to toe with Nene or any other big for that matter, and Pau Gasol provides some superb spacing that can open up lanes and opportunities for the Spurs to score. Every bench player has a vital piece of the puzzle to keep an offense flowing or a defensive scheme going, and whichever bench provided the best support can easily leave the other team in the Texas dust.
2. Point Guard Play
First off, Mike Conley is in the upper echelon of elite point guards. Conley played a significant part in dragging the Grizzlies to 6 games against the Spurs, with a high potential for a 7th game that was a couple plays away from happening. As the playoffs roll forward, the guards become more elite as James Harden is the next boss on the road to the finals. We all know that Harden is a top MVP candidate without question, and Popovich even claimed that the only time he ever watches film is to figure out the bearded maestro earlier in the season.
So with James Harden up to the plate next, how do the Spurs contend with him? The obvious answer is to just throw Kawhi or Danny Green on him and call it a day, but Harden has other teammates that aren’t 40-year-old veterans in Vince Carter and sophomore players sitting behind the arc. Harden has an incredible vision in D’Antoni’s system, and the Spurs need superior perimeter defense to combat the effect of James Harden and his teammates, rather than focusing on one on one defensive possessions as seen in the Memphis series.
Along with combatting Harden’s elite vision, the Spurs also need to combat Harden’s elite ability to get to the free throw line. For reference, he has been getting almost 15 attempts at the line per game this post-season. The problem with throwing Kawhi or Green on Harden for a majority of each game is that if Harden gets calls in his favor, it’ll be incredibly difficult for San Antonio to bounce back into the swing of things when San Antonio’s best defenders are in foul trouble. Even the best defenders can fall for Harden’s scoop drives to the lane, no matter if you're the reigning DPOY or not.
Throughout the playoffs thus far, Harden is averaging 33 points per game along with 7 assists and 6.5 rebounds. Although Tony Parker has been showing signs of his prime in the playoffs, it’s hard to say that he’ll be able to put up relative numbers to Harden, but Parker doesn’t need to compete in the same realm as James. Despite being at a disadvantage in the guard position, all Parker needs to do is provide occasional sparks of brilliance on the offensive end to keep the Spurs afloat, rather than have the entire offense flow through him like Houston does with Harden.
Throughout the series, San Antonio needs to manage the perimeter presence that Harden conducts along with the fouls he draws at a high rate. If the Spurs can mitigate one of the two, San Antonio will have an easier time in the series. The most likely outcome is that they will try to avoid fouling.
3. Three-Point Shooting
Lastly, both teams are nearly identical with their three-point makes during the post-season, (9.8 SA and 9.6 HOU) yet Houston has been taking nearly 10 more shots a game (34 compared to 24). San Antonio has also been scorching hot from deep shooting 41.5% compared to Houston’s 28.5%, who sit dead last in the postseason, but the odds of Houston shooting this poorly throughout the series is unlikely. Ryan Anderson is shooting 12.5% from three, Trevor Ariza is barely scraping by with a 20% clip, and James Harden himself is shooting 24%. Some people say numbers aren’t everything, but the numbers are quite staggering, and if it were any other team besides OKC in the first round, it’s hard to say if Houston would have survived shooting so poorly.
With Houston’s offense heavily relying on the three, there’s a high risk of dying from it as the old saying goes. If Houston comes up dry from deep, their only other option is to attack the paint in classic Moreyball fashion. This is one of San Antonio’s strengths this series as the likes of Aldridge and Dedmon are great at protecting the interior if necessary, but on the other hand are less effective if Houston decided to make it rain.
On San Antonio’s end, the only players below 40% with more than 10 three-point attempts are Danny Green and Manu Ginobili. Relative to what Houston is experiencing this isn’t all that bad. When 8 out of 10 players on your roster who shoot threes are above a 40% clip, you can manage, but it wouldn’t hurt to have Danny Green show up along with Ginobili. If the Spurs maintain their three-point percentage and Houston continues to dwindle with their main offensive threat, this series could be done sooner than most expect.