Spurs vs. Rockets Give and Go Preview

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On the eve of the NBA season, the Houston Rockets suddenly became the league’s most talked about team for a few days. Houston and the Oklahoma City Thunder shook up the Western Conference by sending James Harden to the Rockets for Kevin Martin. There were other pieces involved, of course, but that was the gist of it. On Friday night, the Spurs face the new beard of the Rockets for the first time. The two teams played back in the preseason, but this was before the Harden trade.

To preview the night’s action and get to know the Rockets a little better, Michael Pina, a contributor at TrueHoop Network Rockets site Red94, joined me for a little chat.

Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell: Right on. Let’s talk Spurs-Rockets. My first question for you: how is the Jeremy Lin-James Harden dynamic working out? Based on what little I’ve seen, I feel like the Rockets would be better suited if they had someone else they could start at point guard and then bring Lin off the bench. What’s your take on how they’ve played together this season?

Michael Pina, Red94: I’m growing less and less excited with Lin as the point guard on this team. Harden isn’t a traditional shooting guard, and his playmaking ability feels better suited with someone in the backcourt who’s comfortable as a spot up shooter.

AM: Right. Do you think that’s why he was such a good fit with Eric Maynor in OKC?

MP: I do…and honestly think Toney Douglas spacing the floor is a better fit, even though he’s obviously not a long term option. Lin looks great in transition, but not so much in the half court.

AM: Has the dynamic been sort of like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in their first season together, where they almost had to take turns making plays? Or are Lin and Harden just ill-fitting pieces?

MP: It’s basically impossible to compare anything/anyone with LeBron just because he’s so unprecedentedly awesome. I dont think Lin will ever be 75% as good as Wade at cutting without the ball. Unless Lin’s shot takes a turn for the better (he’s supposedly in the middle of changing his form and technique) they might just not be meant to play together. Put it this way: If the Rockets grabbed Harden on the first day of free agency, I don’t think Daryl Morey goes after Jeremy Lin.

AM: What about Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as a blueprint? Parker has never been a great shooter, and we all know how similar Harden and Ginobili are, but the pair has been able to play together pretty well for most of their careers.

MP: Well, I think Tony Parker is worthy of the Hall of Fame…he may not have developed a consistent 3-point shot, but he’s worked it up to the point where defenses certainly aren’t willing to leave him open. Jeremy Lin remains such an unknown commodity. If he ever showed an ability to be the dependent scorer on a contender, then the Harden/Lin combination would make a ton of sense, but until we get a glimpse of that being possible, I’m doubtful it can work.

I actually have a question for you: Do you think Tim Duncan’s incredible start is a good or bad thing for the Spurs long term chances of winning the title?

AM: I think it’s a good thing. More than the numbers Duncan is putting up, it’s how he’s getting those numbers that is most important. He’s going into the low post more, while still retaining an improved jumper, and making powerful moves around the basket. While his foot speed hasn’t improved greatly, it’s sort of leveled off and he doesn’t look like he’s getting any slower.

MP: I actually watched a ton of Duncan clips on synergy yesterday, and I’m really loving how he’s moving away from the ball, taking advantage of San Antonio’s space and instinctively shifting to the right space whenever a teammate drives.

AM: Yeah, as Zach Lowe pointed out over at Grantland, the Spurs are running pin-down screens for Duncan this year, where a guard will set a down-screen for Duncan and he’ll pop up to around the elbow for an open jumper.

MP: I saw that and think it’s awesome. But we’re just over a month into the season and you have to think Duncan’s ridiculous PER (3rd in the league) and True Shooting % (a career high) will go down…

AM: Absolutely. I expect some plateau in his production. Part of the reason his numbers looked so good is because of the slow starts of Ginobili and Parker, and the various injuries the Spurs have had. That said, it’s nice to know he can still play 40+ minutes and put up big numbers if he needs to. That may be called upon come playoff time. Actually, I shouldn’t say plateau but a dip in production.

MP: I agree, it’s just been such an insane start for him, and it really should be getting more attention, in my opinion. I love Asik as a defender, but the expectation heading into their matchup should still be that Duncan will destroy, and that’s pretty awesome.

AM: If the Spurs go on an end of the season run similar to how they did last year, the Tim Duncan appreciation stories will come back around.

MP: I hope so, do you see a run like that happening? The way I view last season’s WCF are basically that Danny Green disappeared once his shot stopped falling, and there was no backup plan.

AM: Not quite one of the same ilk, but the Spurs are masters at working through the kinks in the regular season and putting things together late.

MP: The Spurs win that series if Green doesn’t meltdown.

AM: Green’s disappearance was a big problem. But at the same time, other guys also disappeared. Tiago Splitter’s confidence went bye-bye as soon as he started missing free throws, Matt Bonner had the same playoff run we’ve seen from him over the years and the Spurs never really replaced TJ Ford when he retired because of injury.

Back to the Rockets, how much is Patrick Patterson playing right now?

MP: I wrote a piece on Patterson earlier this week…he’s the full-time starter and playing like it. And to answer your question, 30 mins a game. I really love the improvement Patterson’s shown: the 3-point shot, the post defense. He’s really worked himself into an above-average NBA power forward.

AM: Patterson can be a problem for the Spurs when the two teams play. San Antonio really struggles to defend the pick-and-pop, and that’s where Patterson has shined. If Houston runs a Harden-Patterson pick-and-pop all game long, the Rockets will get something like a 250.3 offensive efficiency (educated guess).

MP: Haha, I can see that…but they’ve been using him more and more as a floor spreader, running the P&R with Asik instead, then having Asik dive HARD to the middle and letting Harden wreak havoc. Having Delfino on the weakside doesn’t hurt, which kinda brings us back to Lin, and why he’s rightfully the odd man out in late game situations. There’s just no place for him on the court when the Rockets absolutely need a bucket.

AM: Interesting. Where does Chandler Parsons fit in to all this? What kind of season is he having?

MP: Love Parsons…he has to be one of the five best do-everything-kinda-well hustle players in the league, shooting 40% from 3 on over five attempts per game…he fits in perfectly. And his perimeter defense is elite…he really makes the Kobe Bryants of the league work for every basket.

AM: So he’s the typical 3-and-D player that the Spurs love to have? Only longer and more athletic?

MP: Exactly, he’s more than capable of beating his man off the dribble and making things happen at the rim too.

AM: And the Rockets almost didn’t sign him last season, isn’t that right? Wasn’t there someone they were planning on picking up instead, but that fell through and they signed Parsons?

MP: His contract is basically the best value in the league, and it’ll be interesting to see if Morey cashes in before it escalates in 2015.

AM: Is it a better value than Gary Neal’s contract? Parsons’ deal might be a little better, considering production, but it’s close. They’re both making about the same amount of money this season.

MP: Neal’s up for a $1.1 million qualifying offer next season? Parsons is non-guaranteed sub $1 million through the next two seasons. For this season alone, though, it’s definitely a toss up.

AM: So what lineup do the Rockets close games with?

MP: It’s interesting, Kelvin Sampson has kind of just been rolling with whatever’s working. Against the Lakers they closed with Parsons/Asik/Lin all on the bench,  rolling with Douglas and Greg Smith. Harden is pretty much the only guy who’s guaranteed to be on the court when the final buzzer goes off.

AM: And that’s been working for them?

MP: More or less, sure. I mean they’re a borderline playoff team dependent on Harden’s ability to get to the line at the end of games.

AM: Have the Rockets been effective on the offensive glass? That’s been one of the bigger weak spots for the Spurs in this early season, especially when Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson went down, although San Antonio did well against Milwaukee on Wednesday night. Can Houston exploit the Spurs on the boards?

MP: They have Asik, who’s a monster, and Greg Smith is proving to be a slightly less monster backing him up. They rank 9th in offensive rebounding percentage, so it could be an exploited area, definitely.

AM: I’ve just got one last thing for you. I need one random prediction from the game, nothing to do with the final score.

MP: I think the Rockets go big for most of the game in an attempt to dominate the boards, with Harden at the point. And by most of the game, I mean stretches. Like a Harden/Delfino/Parsons/Patterson/Asik type of lineup.

  • Len

    Rockets 3pt defense is just baaaaad. Neal should get plenty of shots again.

  • deathtoall

    It seems to me like the Rockets blogger does not like Lin. I’ve seen a few Rockets game and Lin is not playing poorly. Once his shot picks up a bit, he’ll fit right in with Harden.

  • ThatBigGuy

    How about Splitter for Asik in a sign and trade this summer? Gives us a defensive big who rebounds the crap out of the ball, and gives the Rockets a PnR partner for Harden.

    Asik’s got that $15 mil poison payment in 2014, but the cap hit is a more manageable average of $8.3 million over the life of the contract. Splitter’s due for a $7-$9 million a year payday this summer, which is in the Perkins/Dalembert/Diop/Gortat range.

    I love Splitter’s PnR game, but not $9 mil a year worth. I like Asik’s D and rebounding better for that price.

  • Len

    I mean sure, sounds good for the Spurs. But their defense is atrocious already. Taking away their only decent defensive big man for a good PnR big seems to hurt their team more than it helps.