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NBA Playoffs Preview: Houston Rockets Vs. San Antonio Spurs

Soobum Im - USA TODAY Sports

Can Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs slow down Houston’s three-point barrage?

It’s a battle of Texas teams in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Rockets and Spurs will face off in the postseason for what is arguably the biggest matchup between the two since the 1995 Western Conference Finals. It’ll feature two top MVP candidates and two very different styles of play on both sides. Let’s take a look at some key areas and important players for each team. 

Spurs’ keys To Winning The Series

Stopping the pick and roll is the biggest key for San Antonio in this series. There’s an array of options to defend the pick and roll, but Harden’s skills make it nearly impossible to do it efficiently. Many coaches have chosen to utilize the switch against Harden this season to avoid the defense collapsing too hard on a drive to the basket and leaving three-point shooters wide open. The Thunder switched a lot against Houston in the first round, often leaving big men isolated to guard the MVP candidate one-on-one. San Antonio did some of the same during the regular season and often paid the price. 

Since the playoffs began, James Harden has averaged the most points per possession (1.11) in the pick and roll of any player who ran it more than 10 times per game. Kawhi Leonard is arguably the most ideal defender to slow Harden down on drives, but Houston will undoubtedly be looking for ways to get Leonard far away from the middle of the court. Harden’s points per game went up each time the two teams faced each other in the regular season, so Popovich and the Spurs will be looking to throw different looks at him going forward.  

Spurs’ X-Factor: Patty Mills

Leonard is the obvious choice here, but the Spurs will need a second scorer to step up in order to oust the Rockets. With LaMarcus Aldridge averaging 16 points per game in April, the lowest for him in any month this season, Patty Mills could be even more important as an offensive option from the perimeter. Mills was huge in Game 5 against the Grizzlies, scoring 20 points and going five for seven from three-point range. A trio of those threes came in the fourth quarter, helping San Antonio build a double-digit lead on the way to a win. 

The Spurs’ offense found another gear with Mills and fellow point guard Tony Parker on the court at the same time. San Antonio had a 181.3 offensive rating with the duo in a total of 18 minutes in Round 1, good for the best rating of any two-man lineup on the team. It’s a look Gregg Popovich could have been saving for the playoffs — Parker and Mills played together for only 24 minutes in the regular season. If Houston takes advantage of their personnel and lean on three-guard lineups, Patty Mills will be extremely important.

Rockets’ Keys To Winning The Series

The biggest key for the Rockets is the battle for points in the paint. Daryl Morey’s offensive philosophy in this area has been very successful — Houston set an NBA record for most threes made in a season (1,181) and still finished sixth in points in the paint per game (47.0). However, Houston struggled in this area defensively, allowing opponents to score the most points down low (48.8) of any team in the league this season. 

The Rockets benefit from a good matchup in this statistical area. The Spurs averaged the fewest points in the paint of any team in the league this season. Based on how closely matched the two teams are across the board, Houston would be wise to put an extra emphasis on slowing down the Spurs’ ability to get easy layups and dunks. 

Rockets’ X-Factor: Nenê Hilario

Any of the Rockets’ potent three-point shooters could be the team’s biggest factor if they get hot from downtown. To compliment that, someone will need to step up on the front line, and Nenê is a great candidate to do so. He’s often the first big man off the bench for Houston, and he showed what kind of impact he can have in the playoffs in Game 4 of the first round. He scored 28 points on perfect 12-for-12 shooting from the field, helping Houston to a four-point victory on the road.

Nenê could see his minutes increase even more against the Spurs. Popovich has a history of utilizing the Hack-a-Shaq strategy against players who shoot poorly from the free-throw line in close games — just ask DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard. Clint Capela could be a target if San Antonio is searching for an advantage in the fourth quarter. If Capela needs to be removed from the game, Nenê provides stability at the center position. If the 16-year veteran can continue to put up big numbers, Houston can counter any fouling strategies the Spurs throw at them. 

Projected Outcome: Rockets In Seven

This series is possibly the most evenly matched of any in this year’s conference semifinals. The four games the Rockets and Spurs played against each other this season were decided by an average of less than five points. Harden and Leonard are both having historic individual seasons and will surely continue to impress.

Ultimately, the Rockets’ three-point shooting will determine the outcome of the series. Houston attempted more than 40 per game and shot them at a 35.7% rate. If they can dominate from the outside, it will likely be too tough for the Spurs’ offense to match. It’ll be the best test of the high-volume three-point strategy we’ve seen yet. Houston shot just 28.4% from deep in the first round — don’t be surprised if that number rises up again in Round 2. 

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, David Kaptzan.

Which team holds the record for most three-pointers made in a single season?
Created 4/29/17
  1. New York Knicks (2012-13)
  2. Cleveland Cavaliers (2014-15)
  3. Golden State Warriors (2015-16)
  4. Houston Rockets (2016-17)

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