These two franchises battled 20 years ago, in the days of Olajuwon and Robinson. And yet, despite how often they've each both made the playoffs, even with all their regular-season battles, these two teams haven't faced one another in all that time. Until now.
But that doesn't mean they are unfamiliar with one another.
And then, of course, there's Mike D'Antoni, foiled so often with his Seven Seconds or Less Suns by the Spurs. D'Antoni has been plagued by the Spurs. Injuries, the Horry hip-check, the Duncan 3-pointer. There's a history there, and demons that D'Antoni has to face again.
That's about the past, though. The present is compelling enough. Two MVP candidates, Harden and Kawhi Leonard, facing off.
THE MARQUEE MATCHUP
The first-round matchup between Harden and Russell Westbrook stole headlines, but they were fundamentally nearly the same player, offensive maestros conducting almost all the parts themselves. Leonard, however, is a different beast. A scoring machine drenched in efficiency, Leonard is the perfect counter to Harden, right down to his silent demeanor and emphasis on defense.
If Westbrook-Harden was tinged as a philosophical basketball debate between individual accomplishment and contribution to winning, then Harden-Leonard is tapped as individual excellence and star power vs. efficiency supremacy and team success. Suddenly, Leonard is the player who brings more wins to the table, and it's Harden's individual contributions that are held up.
It should be noted that Leonard is having the superior playoffs by a healthy margin. Harden has more rebounds and assists, on account of his role and the pace of the Thunder-Rockets series, but Leonard's efficiency has been leaps and bounds better, both on an individual and team level.
|Points per game||31.2||33.2|
|Rebounds per game||6||6.4|
|Assists per game||3.8||7|
|True Shooting Percentage||71.5||59.7|
Harden shot just 41 percent from the field and 24 percent from 3-point range against the Thunder, and the Rockets were outscored when Harden and Westbrook shared the floor. But Houston simply destroyed the OKC reserves with its depth and versatility. Other players stepped up, as they will in this series.
Leonard, on the other hand, is dancing with that rare status we haven't seen outside of Stephen Curry and prime Kobe Bryant that reminds you of Jordan, where every shot he takes you're certain is going down at this point. His efficiency (that 71.5 True Shooting percentage!) is out of this world. Again, all the things made to build up Harden over Westbrook, Leonard has been better at, just not as much of a playmaker. (And even that, he punished the Grizzlies in Game 6 when they sent legions to try and stop him.)
Leonard also went 3-1 in the regular season against the Rockets, including this famous moment:
And yet ... consider this.
With Leonard on the court this season, Harden averaged 27.4 points per 36 minutes, shooting 49 percent from the field with 11 assists and six turnovers per 36 minutes. More importantly? The Rockets outscored the Spurs by seven points in the 141 minutes they shared the floor. This is big. Houston won the biggest matchup.
What's more? With Leonard on-court and Harden on the bench, the Spurs and Rockets played to a draw, plus-minus of zero. The Spurs literally won the season series vs. Houston when Leonard was not on the floor, and Harden was off. That's where they won those games.
Now, all of this comes with a healthy dose of consideration that the regular season often doesn't translate to playoff results. The surface-level analysis tips Leonard. He's an excellent matchup against Harden in clutch time, and if he gets in foul trouble or needs a defensive breather, he can hand off the reins to Danny Green, who had an amazing defensive series against Memphis.
At the end, this matchup is more important for Houston than San Antonio. The Spurs can win if Leonard's not the best player in the series. The Rockets cannot win if Harden isn't the best player on the floor. He struggled against the Thunder and Andre Roberson's defense, and now he's facing Roberson if you gave him a miniature-LeBron body and made him the most efficient shooter on the planet right now (with apologies to Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry).
Harden has had series where he's vanished: in 2014 vs. the Blazers, and 2015 vs. the Clippers, a comeback that was led by the end of the bench. If the Rockets are going to pull off this upset, Harden has to have one for the ages, against his toughest matchup.
KEY PLAYOFF MATCHUPS AND NOTES
- If the Spurs do put Leonard on someone other than Harden, the Rockets Tony Parker and Pau Gasol, but they have to quarantine Leonard in the corner if he's guarding Ariza. The Rockets' shooters are too good for him to abandon and help off of. . They can attack the rest of the Spurs' defense, especially
- Clint Capela will be a huge deal in this series. He struggled against the Thunder's athleticism, but could have an easier time against San Antonio. LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol are too slow to hang with him on the lob, and Dewayne Dedmon is too short. Capela could quickly wind up in foul trouble when the Spurs isolate him vs. Aldridge, however.
- Tony Parker had a brilliant series against Memphis, and it'll be fascinating to see what happens in this series. Parker hit the wall, hard, in the second round last year against the Thunder. He's no spring chicken, and while fighting over screens vs. Patrick Beverley will be tiresome enough, Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon are better wing defenders than what Memphis brought to the table in pick and roll.
- Expect Green to have a huge offensive series after a dismal start vs. Memphis, same deal for Manu Ginobili. The Rockets' defense will be like a breath of fresh air compared to Memphis', even as the Rockets are slightly underrated on that end.
- LaMarcus Aldridge, too, had a rough time against the Grizzlies' physicality, but don't think it'll be that easy. Nene is having a renaissance year (or as I'm calling it, a ReNenessaince) and he's got the old-man strength to hang.
- Houston won the Thunder series without shooting well from deep. That's a testament to how the Rockets can attack the rim, but it's also something they have to fix going into this series. They absolutely, 100 percent have to make these games into a shootout. They can't win a grind-out slugfest with the Spurs.
- The Rockets won't hide Harden as much as you'd think. His on-ball defense is better than he's given credit for, and putting him on Parker might be the best option, unless San Antonio runs him off a hundred screens, which would be just as tiring for Parker as for Harden.
- When San Antonio goes to put Danny Green on Harden, that means Tony Parker is going to have to guard Patrick Beverley (who had a monster series vs. the Thunder) or Eric Gordon. The Rockets need to attack whoever Parker is guarding. If they switch Leonard onto the other guard and put Parker on Ariza, that's where things get difficult. It's why a three-guard, two-big lineup might be crucial in this series. They have to find ways to exploit Parker.
- Patty Mills vs. Patrick Beverley is going to be worth every second of your viewing time.
- Ryan Anderson could wind up unplayable in this series. He's not big enough to check either of the Spurs' big men, and if San Antonio goes small, that means putting Anderson on a guard since he can't check Leonard. Meanwhile, the Spurs would be comfortable with making him into a scorer. Unless he can absolutely blister in the pick and pop, that's going to be a tough equation for the Rockets to come out on top of. Anderson shot 50 percent from 3-point range and was a plus-7 with Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor, however.
- Turnovers are a big deal. The Spurs got 20 points per 100 possessions off turnovers vs. Houston this season, and it's an implicit Achilles heel with any D'Antoni team. Their fast-break points weren't significantly higher, but they punished Houston for those mistakes.
I'm taking the Houston Rockets in six. I can't buy into them beating San Antonio in a road Game 7, which always comes down to who makes shots, and home court plays a role here. For years, the Spurs' roster model has had issues with big, athletic centers who can run the pick and roll effectively. That's Capela. The Spurs have struggled this year with teams that can take advantage of their defensive personnel weaknesses which are masked by a tremendous overall scheme, and Houston can do that.
The Memphis Grizzlies shot 39 percent from 3-point range vs. San Antonio in the first round, taking 2.5 more 3's per 100 possessions than the Spurs allowed opponents in the regular season. Some of that was the Spurs daring the Grizzlies to beat them with it, which they almost did, and some of it is the Spurs' personnel. All year long I've had the sneaking suspicion that the Spurs' record was the product of their superior discipline and focus vs. most mortal teams, a testament to their system and Kawhi Leonard's individual play. Gregg Popovich has made comments throughout the season which seem to back up this theory, even if he still obviously believes they can win.
A team with this many weapons, with a star who can draw fouls in Harden, with a bench that is stocked with confident players ready to compete and the wear and tear from another tough Memphis series makes me lean Houston. If the Spurs win, no one will be surprised; they are arguably the greatest franchise in sports over the past 20 years, and Kawhi Leonard has looked like the best player in basketball. But more and more the Spurs, who for so long were built on their depth, versatility, and overall ability 1-12, have looked like "Kawhi and some guys," while the Rockets showed against the Thunder that their personnel are better than advertised.
Harden still has to be the best player in the series, and if he fails to do so, the Rockets may wind up getting ripped to shreds. But Harden has better games in front of him, and some favorable matchups when Leonard isn't making his life a living hell. That'll be enough to get Houston the split in San Antonio, a 3-1 lead, and a closeout in the Toyota Center.
Buckle up, this may wind up being the best series we see all playoffs.