The Spurs are facing a significant problem from the Houston Rockets, and it will decide the fate of this series.
With the Rockets-Spurs series tied 2-2, nobody can predict the winner of this bracket. The Rockets throw a haymaker, then the Spurs throw a couple heavy blows, and the Rockets came back with another stunner with a 125-104 blowout. With game 5 happening in San Antonio, Popovich is going to need to make significant adjustments to counter the Moreyball fury and it all stems from one problem: Getting Houston off of the three-point line.
With Nene suffering a groin injury and heading to the hospital, the perimeter defense will have a great opportunity to force the Rockets inside the arc and make the Rockets shoot low percentage shots. Gasol, Aldridge, and Lee can now operate more effectively within the Spurs defense, but it all starts with the perimeter defense and if they get the appropriate switches. The Rockets made 19/43 threes in game 4 and a fair amount happened to be open looks due to poor defensive assignments. This is especially prevalent when Aldridge is isolated on James Harden or Lou Williams, and the Spurs simply cannot survive when their big men are isolated on an island with a professional scorer.
To mitigate the amount of three point makes by Houston, the Spurs will need to keep their big men at bay as much as possible to force a mid-range shot or even a shot in the paint.
To demonstrate how deadly the three is for Houston, In game 2 where the Spurs won 121-96, the Rockets were held to “only” 36 three point attempts, relative to an absurd 50 in game 1, 39 in game 3, and 43 in game 4. For reference, they are averaging 37 a game this post-season. All it takes for the Houston offense to get going in one or two three’s and before you know it, you’re in a 20 point hole which is almost exactly what happened to the Spurs in game 4.
Without surprise, much of these three point attempts come from none other than James Harden. Whether he’s shooting them or assisting them, he is the engine to this D’Antoni offense. In game 4, Harden assisted on 8 three-point makes while garnering 4 makes of his own, which, in other words, converts to over 60% of Houston’s three-pointers coming from the Bearded Maestro alone that night. Yes, stopping Harden is easier said than done, but the Spurs made the sacrifice of not fouling him and instead gave him the opportunity to operate offensively. Harden only took 6 free throws all of game 4, and as much as the Spurs hate fouling, it might be one unfavorable strategy in order to keep the game within striking distance.
As obnoxious as it is, a 2 is less than a 3, and fouling is one way of stopping a team’s momentum asides from timeouts. The only drawback to this fouling strategy is that the Spurs cannot afford to put Green or Leonard in foul trouble, and if the Rockets get into the bonus early on, it’s just an additional weapon for the rest of the team. This can then snowball into far more dire situations than letting Harden dish out assists, thus we are back to where we started: Proper defensive assignments from the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard cannot be expected to guard every shooter and provide a majority of the Spurs offense, so the rest of the team will need to communicate in order to slow down the Rockets.
Hypothetically, let’s assume the Spurs will have their defense in check, Houston ends up taking 30-35 three-point attempts next game, and now what? The Spurs now need to play at their own pace.
The Spurs are a much bigger lineup now with Nene being out of the series. Asides from Spurs fans dying on the inside seeing 6’9 David Lee air ball a hook shot against 6’1 Lou Williams, the Spurs need to push the interior as much as possible. These are the kinds of situations where LaMarcus Aldridge can thrive in as he got a few buckets in a row when Nene was out. Despite all of the flak that LMA gets, he showed the Spurs some hope that the game was in reach before Popovich pulled the plug. Kawhi Leonard has an incredibly elite interior game, along with the athleticism of Dejounte Murray and Jonathon Simmons, there is a need for more drives to the paint in game 5. San Antonio has to to get Houston’s big men in foul trouble early on to create the best chance of winning if the three-pointer isn’t falling which is currently the case.
Throughout the series, the Spurs are only making 33.5% of their threes while the Rockets are hovering closer to 38% with nearly double the makes. You do not need to be as a statistician to understand that hardly anyone can keep up with such volume. If the Spurs can make a majority of their shots inside the arc, with a couple splashes from 25 feet away, this might be an offense that Gregg Popovich can win with, and is very accustomed to seeing as this is how the Spurs played in the Tim Duncan days. Sure, Tony Parker is out, and Duncan retired, but with the way the series is setup, LaMarcus and Dejounte can punish Houston on the inside like Parker and Duncan did back in the day.
So with 82% of game 5 winners ending up winning the entire series, the Spurs are going to be put through a grueling test at home. Will their defense be up to par unlike game 4? Will Harden continue to distribute at a blazing hot rate? And will we see an interior heavy offense from the Silver and Black to counter the Houston three-pointer? If San Antonio can punish Houston's lack of size for the rest of the series and reduce Houston's three point volume, we can expect a win in the AT&T Center if all falls according to plan.