Spurs look to solve their Rockets problem

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The lineups are official for tonight in Houston, and we’ve learned Patty Mills, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard will all miss tonight’s game for rest purposes.

San Antonio locked up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs by defeating Phoenix on Friday, so it has the freedom to operate how it would like over the final two games of the season. Nobody should bat an eye at the decision to rest so many players.

Still, there remains at least some semblance of motivation for each side.

On one hand, the Spurs have been roasted by the Rockets this season, and they’d certainly like to find somewhat of a foothold against a team they could very well face in the second round. On the other hand, Houston is fighting tooth and nail with Portland for that fourth seed, so they could also use a win. These are two ingredients that could make for a tastier Monday night entree than some expected a week or two ago. (Except maybe not, considering the lineup changes of which we’ve been notified.)

And to say San Antonio is looking for an answer to the Rockets might be an understatement. The Spurs have basically been clobbered by their I-10 rivals all season long, though the majority of those beatings came in 2013, before this team got hot. The third meeting was something of a throwaway, given the fact Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter didn’t play, and that was before Manu Ginobili went down with an injured hamstring after a second-quarter dunk. James Harden didn’t play in that game, either, so let’s not look too much into that one.

Houston’s 3-point jacking, rim-running style is an issue for San Antonio — a team that wants to force mid-range jumpers (the league’s least-efficient shot) as often as possible. The only problem is, the Rockets don’t want to shoot them. Like, at all. Only 5.7 percent of their points come from the mid-range area, per NBA.com’s stats page; the next closest team is Philadelphia, who gets 12.4 percent of its points from mid-range. For the sake of comparison, the Spurs get 17 percent of their points from mid-range, and they’re a team that’s as analytically aware as any other. Crazy-ass Rockets.

But if you’re thinking, “Well, doesn’t Houston’s scheme play right into San Antonio’s hands, then?” Well, yes and no. While the Spurs feel good about their ability to contest shots from both the perimeter and around the basket, it’s the Rockets’ personnel and the ways they manufacture these shots that make life extremely difficult.

Let’s go back to the first two games, when the Spurs not only couldn’t stop the Rockets, but they had a ton of trouble putting the ball in the basket themselves. The offense has been much better in recent months, so let’s focus on defense, where Houston has basically ripped San Antonio apart.

Led by James Harden and Chandler Parsons, the Rockets love to push the pace. Only four teams in the league get out and go more quickly than Houston, and three of those (the Sixers, Lakers and Nuggets) have negative net ratings on the year and like to run because the half-court might as well be a fortress wall for their offenses. But these guys are much more dangerous than most when they get up in transition.

Harden is one of the most unique, dangerous and frustrating finishers in the league, and he’s almost always surrounded by shooters and big men who can follow up strongly on the offensive glass. You must not only protect the ball, but it’s crucial for the Spurs that they hit shots to keep the Rockets from running freely. The Spurs shot just 44.5 percent from the floor, including 30 percent from three, in those first two meetings, and Houston made them pay dearly on the other end.

The Rockets were an absolutely ridiculous 20-of-33 from the floor in transition opportunities in the two games combined, per mySynergySports, and an even more astounding 7-of-8 from the 3-point line in those situations. So basically, they murdered the Spurs when they got out and ran. Again, as I wrote about in my recap of the Suns game, Popovich’s teams have always been very good at controlling the chaos and the pace of games, and it’s vital to his team’s playoff health that they do so against the likes of Houston.

Still, the Rockets can kill you in other ways. Against the Spurs, it’s typically with a taste of their own medicine. Houston has demolished San Antonio with the pick-and-roll this season (I’m starting to run out of adjectives related to destruction or basketball murder here), and it all starts with Harden. There’s nothing complex about the way Kevin McHale sets up his offense, he just creates enough space for his players to attack.

Whether the big man rolls, pops or just sets a screen for the hell of it — seriously, sometimes a guy like Terrence Jones will set a screen and then just kind of get out of the way — the spacing is almost always there. But it depends on the lineup. Dwight Howard is always going to look to roll to the rim when he’s involved in the pick-and-roll, and there are almost always shooters surrounding the action. What makes the Rockets a nightmare to deal with is that Harden always has too many options to properly defend. The right choice isn’t always made, but they can hurt you in multiple ways, whether it be on the drive, from deep or via offensive rebounding.

Here are a couple of different varieties:

First is a high screen-and-roll with Terrence Jones, who’s unfortunately being guarded by Tim Duncan. The Rockets run a lot of small-ball lineups, which means when Timmy’s on the floor he’s forced into defending active fours like Jones. All Harden has to do is get into the paint (the blue circle) and it’s over. Against Duncan on an island, that’s not a problem.

DuncanHarden

HardenPnR

Again look at all the shooters around the perimeter. Regardless of what the Spurs decided to do after the pick, chances were good Houston would be able to line up an easy shot. They wound up getting an attempt right at the rim, the easiest shot of them all.

The other type of screen-and-roll the Rockets like to run come off these quick curls and almost always involve Howard. Dwight sets the pick, then rolls and looks for a pocket pass from Harden. Of course, Harden has the choice to attack the rim or stop and pop as well. Here, Harden stops on a dime right in front of Kawhi Leonard — he’s so damn good at initiating awkward, foul-inducing contact while maintaining his ability to finish the play — and gets the shot up.

As you can see, he’s got all kinds of options available outside, and if they miss, he’s got Jones attacking the boards.

SideHarden

The Rockets love to run, attack the rim, shoot threes and attack the offensive boards, and their personnel groupings make those kinds of things exhausting to deal with for the Spurs. Sure, Howard, Harden and Parsons can beat you up, but Jones has been an absolute terror for San Antonio, and Jeremy Lin has made his mark as well.

So it’s going to be interesting to watch. We’ve seen a lot of subtle experimentation from Popovich this season in terms of lineups used and situational strategy changes, so I’m intrigued if we’ll see anything different tonight or just some more vanilla looks to avoid giving away any secrets.

Regardless, the outcome of this game doesn’t matter as much to the Spurs as it does to the Rockets, so don’t get too caught up on the results. Instead, look at the little things. Will San Antonio take care of the ball? Will the offense find its rhythm against Houston and maintain it for 48 minutes? Or, most importantly, will the Spurs find a way to stifle the Rockets a little more effectively than they did in those first two games, when Houston scored better than 110 points per 100 possessions? It’s going to be tough without the likes of Leonard, Green and Splitter.

And one more little thing. Keep an eye out for any lineups involving Jeff Ayres. I know he’s kind of fallen off the map in recent months, but against the Suns he was really good defensively, and he played a big part in shutting down their pick-and-roll on Friday. He’s the Spurs’ most athletic big, and he’s able to occupy that space off the screens and corral ball-handlers to an extent. Situationally, it’s worth watching.

OK. That’s entirely too long a preview for a game that doesn’t mean much for the Spurs. But these two have a great shot at meeting in the second round, so it’s all stuff to monitor.

Screenshots courtesy of NBA.com.

Tip-off from Houston is set for 7 p.m. Any Spurs fans in the area can get seats for tonight’s game by visiting our friends at TiqIQ.

  • I need more cowbell

    lol

  • TTM

    Oh goodness… you must not be able to read. This wasn’t a comedy post.

  • I need more cowbell

    its a tiny man with his arms up cuz hes drowning……lol…..

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  • David L. Barnes

    So, Matthew, how do you think the Spurs did last night on the things you identified in this article? Did you write a recap?