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Houston Rockets vs. San Antonio Spurs: (Un)biased Predictions

Nov 9, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard Eric Gordon (10) dunks the ball against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half at AT&T Center. The rockets won 101-99. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 9, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard Eric Gordon (10) dunks the ball against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half at AT&T Center. The rockets won 101-99. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
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Nov 9, 2016; USA; Houston Rockets guard E. Gordon (10) dunks the ball against the Spurs during the second half. The rockets won 101-99. Credit: Soobum I.-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets are set to take on the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. Everybody is biased to some extent, so here are some series predictions from both sides of the fence.

Just as many Houston Rockets fans predicted, James Harden and the gang got through the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round in an easy five games. Even more predictably, the San Antonio Spurs did away with the Memphis Grizzlies to advance. Ergo, the upcoming matchup between the Rockets and Spurs has seemingly been bound to happen since as early as January.

Of course, then, I’ve been thinking about how this series will end since it was still cold outside in Texas. As I pointed out before the first round began, it’s tough to remain unbiased in these types of situations. Both teams finished in the top three in the league record-wise, both have a well-coached squad that knows its identity, and both have a transcendent superstar leading the charge. Things seem so terribly even going into the matchup, but as a Rockets fan I’ll give them the nod in my head nine times out of 10.

To balance things out, I’ve brought in some opinions from other places along the fan spectrum. Joining me today to discuss a few points on the Rockets/Spurs showdown are Matthew Perez and Sam Casey.

Matthew Perez is the site expert for Air Alamo, the FanSided site covering the Spurs. He’ll obviously vocalize the equal but opposite bias towards San Antonio. Sam Casey is a contributor for FanSided’s Mavericks site, The Smoking Cuban.

I pointed out this disclaimer last time around, but I’ll say it again to make sure it’s clear: just because Sam and I are brothers does not mean our sports opinions are similar at all. Sam will represent the middle of the road in this discussion. After all, he’s a Mavs fan, thus sworn by oath to loathe both other Texas teams.

Okay, now that everyone’e been introduced, let’s get this party started with the first topic of discussion.

Next: 1. Which superstar will outplay the other?

March 2017: TX; Houston Rockets J.Harden (13) and small forward K.Leonard (behind) battle for rebounding position during a game at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: S. Im-USA TODAY

Which superstar (Harden or Kawhi, duh) will outplay the other in this series?

Isn’t it beautiful, fellow basketball fans, that we get to enjoy another MVP candidate battle? Russell Westbrook will likely win MVP, but this upcoming second installment will just as likely prove to be much more entertaining than round one.

It opens up the storied debate of whether or not team success should matter in MVP voting, but we’ll divert from getting into that. (But hey, Spurs fans, at least we can all agree that both our guys got cheated for having “too much help.”)

Anyway, onto the question: will James Harden outplay Kawhi Leonard during the second round or will the Klaw prove to be better than the Beard?

Ben Casey

Leonard will play more efficiently than Harden, but he won’t play better than Harden. Kawhi will probably turn the ball over less often and finish with a better true shooting percentage, but won’t have produced more for his team.

Harden, a point guard, is tasked with handling the ball for a much higher percentage of the time than Leonard. It’s understandable, therefore, if he coughs up the ball a bit more often than his counterpart. It’s just an effect of the position difference. That’s why it’s not necessarily a knock against Leonard that Harden tallied more assists this season alone than he has for his entire career.

it’s not necessarily a knock against Leonard that Harden tallied more assists this season alone than he has for his entire career.

All that being said, it’s not out of the question to anticipate Leonard going nuts and averaging something like 38 points per game while playing very solid defense.

Harden, however, could realistically put up 30+ points and dish out double digit dimes as well. In the end, it’ll be Harden who put more points on the board for his team.

Kawhi’s defense will be better than Harden’s as expected, but teams have gotten so smart about lessening the impact of individual defense that it won’t move the needle enough in his direction. It’ll be extremely close, but I bet James Harden looks like the better player this series.

Matthew Perez

Well, I guess you have to define “outplay.” Will Harden have more points in the series than Kawhi? Probably. Will he have more assists than Kawhi in the series? Probably.

But, in terms of efficiency, Kawhi will blow Harden out of the water. Kawhi will shoot a higher percentage from the field, three point range, and the free throw line. Most importantly, he’ll have a lot fewer turnovers.

Plus, the Spurs have better defenders to throw at Harden than the Rockets have for Kawhi. Danny Green is one of the best wing defenders in the NBA, and in crunch time, we’ll see a lot of Kawhi vs. Harden. On the other hand, the Rockets only really have Trevor Ariza to defend Kawhi. Outside of Ariza, Beverley and Gordon are too small, Harden isn’t a great defender, and Nene and Clint Capela are too slow.

So, to answer your question: Harden will have more points and assists, but Kawhi will outplay Harden on an all around scale.

Sam Casey

I love how we are getting the Battle of the MVPs 2.0 with this series. In this individual matchup, I think Kawhi has a great chance to show just how talented he is. He had a spectacular first round and I don’t think Ariza has the strength to check the Klaw. With the speed at which Houston puts up points, the pressure will be on for Leonard to score efficiently and often, and he will rise to the occasion.

As for the Beard, San Antonio has two very solid defenders to throw at him in Danny Green and Kawhi. Look for these guys to share time hounding him. However, Harden handled the stellar defense and pressure applied by Andre Roberson in the first round. I think this series won’t consist of the most efficient performances by Harden, but he will still get his.

In this head-to-head superstar matchup, I predict Kawhi gets the nod as far as individual performance is concerned.

Next: 2. How should San Antonio plan to defend Houston?

Mar 6, 2017; USA; Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) dunks the ball against the Spurs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Im-USA TODAY Sports

2. How should the Spurs go about defending Houston’s elite offense?

In an interview earlier this year, Rockets GM Daryl Morey said that Houston’s best chance to beat the league’s best teams is by simply barraging them with threes. After all, the Rockets shot about seven more times beyond the arc than any other team in the regular season. However, the Thunder did a fantastic job of limiting three point attempts and still lost in just five games. What should the Spurs’ defensive game plan be?

Matthew Perez

Defending Houston is simple, yet difficult. Limit the three point attempts, which during the regular season, the Spurs were elite at doing. The Spurs went 3-1 against Houston in the season series, mainly because they slowed the pace down, limited three point shots, and forced the Rockets to defend, which isn’t their strong suit.

If the Spurs get into a shoot out, they will lose this series. They just don’t have the offensive firepower that the Rockets do, especially from long range. Luckily, Gregg Popovich knows that very well. If San Antonio can make this a half court game, they’ll have the advantage on both sides of the ball.

Sam Casey

It may sound counterintuitive, but if I’m Pop, I’m game planning on how to limit Harden’s supporting cast rather than the emphasis being on Harden himself. The way Houston really kills teams is with their three point shooting, and that comes from role players like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trever Ariza, and so on.

Let Harden score 50 points if you need to, just don’t let Ryan Anderson cook you for 25.

The Spurs should refrain from switching on most pick and rolls, and should play less help defense in favor of staying home and protecting the perimeter. The Beard is going to get buckets no matter what, so they may as well just let him do so by making layups and free throws rather than assisting for wide open threes. Let’s see just how much Kawhi can bottle him up.

The Mavs tried this strategy multiple times against teams who are run by a single superstar like OKC and the Wizards and it was rather effective. Let Harden score 50 points if you need to, just don’t let Ryan Anderson cook you for 25. Turn Harden into a scorer only rather than a dynamic floor general.

Ben Casey

The first thing the Spurs should do is have Kawhi guard Harden as often as possible. If he guards anybody else, the Rockets will Kawhisolate him–simply have Ariza or whoever go stand in the corner, as far from the play as possible.

In that situation, Kawhi won’t be able to help off to stop a James Harden drive at risk of giving Ariza a wide open triple. But if he stays, Harden’s doing the cooking dance after leaving anybody else on the team in the dust. All of Kawhi’s defensive greatness will be relegated to nothing if Popovich puts him on anybody but Harden.

After that, the Spurs will want to do as little switching as possible. The last thing San Antonio wants to see is Lou Williams dancing on the perimeter with Pau Gasol as his partner. Pau and Tony Parker are defensive liabilities nowadays, and Houston will look to exploit that. Pop needs to decide beforehand who he wants to hide Parker and Gasol on, and then do everything in his power to allow those assignments to stick.

Next: 3. What's your overall prediction for the series?

Mar 6, 2017; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives to the basket as Spurs power forward L. Aldridge (12) defends during the second half. Credit: S. Im-USA TODAY Sports

3. All things considered, which team has the better chance of escaping the second round?

Most signs point to this being an incredibly exciting series. The Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs are two of the best teams in basketball, but are still so very different in many ways. As much as this series will be a battle of superstars, it’ll be a battle of conventions as well, a comparison of ideals. When the dust settles, who will emerge the victor of this round two matchup?

Sam Casey

Both of these teams are so talented and well coached, there’s truly no way to confidently predict this series. However, I think Houston handled business in the first round and looked a little better than their current competition, with the Spurs needing Kawhi to transform into Superman to win games against a 7-seed Memphis team with two injured starters (LOL at Parsons, am I right Rockets fans?).

LaMarcus Aldridge had an uninspired first series and I’m not sure how he works defensively against the spread Houston offense. I simply don’t see the Spurs having the pieces or scheme to score blow-for-blow with the Rockets and they aren’t equipped to handle the offensive juggernaut defensively.

Houston was able to handle a very solid defensive team in the Thunder without slowing down, and Harden is a man on a mission this season. It’ll take every trick in Pop’s book to make this work, and in the end it won’t be enough. Rockets in seven.

Matthew Perez

For the Spurs, this series comes down to their role players, which plagued them for their two games in Memphis. Manu Ginobili went scoreless until game five, TP went scoreless in game three, Green and Pau haven’t been as hot from deep.

Mike D’Antoni is an offensive guru, and he took the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference Finals two years in a row. In 2005, the Suns won 62 games. In the Western Conference Finals, they lost to the Spurs in five games. The following year, they won 52 games. They again made the semifinals, but lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six games.

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Ultimately, defense wins championships, and the Spurs are the best defensive team in the NBA. The Rockets are the Warriors without the defensive committment, and that will get exposed this series.

While I’m leaning towards Spurs in five, the role players have been shaky, so I think Spurs win in six.

Ben Casey

First of all, I foresee this series going to at least six games. My guess is it extends all the way to seven. I know the regular season doesn’t always mean much when it comes to playoff basketball, but the four-game season series between the two teams was decided by a measly eight points. They’re just evenly matched in so many areas.

The Rockets had an extra few days of rest and preparation, and that should allow them to steal one of the first two on the road against San Antonio. They’ll probably also split the two in Houston as well–the Spurs are just too good to go down 3-1. If I’m correct, it’ll be all tied up going back to the AT&T Center for game five.

My prediction is that the Spurs will win game five on their home court, giving them the commanding 3-2 lead. James Harden will respond by putting on the performance of his life in game six, and the momentum will swing too far towards Houston for them to lose game seven. Rockets advance, and no other series in the playoffs this year ends up being half as exciting as this one.

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No matter how it ends, this series will be a good one from an entertainment standpoint. Houston’s offense is near unstoppable, and San Antonio’s defense is the basketball version of a brick wall. Whichever team goes down will go down swinging, getting in a few good hits on their opponent before it’s all said and done.

The Rockets/Spurs showdown begins on Monday at 8:30 CT on TNT, so tune in to watch some of the best basketball this postseason will have to offer.

Next: James Harden's Successful Recruiting Efforts

As the playoffs carry on, come back to Space City Scoop for more analysis, news, and opinions on the Houston Rockets. Also make sure to check out more of Matthew Perez’s work at Air Alamo and Sam Casey’s at The Smoking Cuban.

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