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Friday, April 28, 2017

San Antonio Versus Houston Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 San Antonio (61-21) vs. #3 Houston (55-27)

Season series: San Antonio, 3-1

Houston can win if…James Harden performs at an MVP level, the Rockets shoot a high percentage from three point range and the Rockets hold the Spurs to under 105 ppg (because the Rockets are unlikely to average more than 105 ppg versus the Spurs).

James Harden will almost certainly average at least 25 ppg and 7 apg in this series. Those numbers are simply a product of his role in Coach D'Antoni's system; Harden will have the ball a lot, he will shoot the ball a lot and when he is on the court he will make most of the passes that lead directly to field goal attempts by his teammates. The problem for Houston is that Harden will also almost certainly shoot less than .450 from the field and very probably less than .420 or even .400 from the field--and he will likely commit turnovers at a very high rate (between 5-7 per game). In addition, Harden will play little to no defense. None of these things mattered very much in the first round, when the Rockets defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder despite Russell Westbrook's incredible numbers (37.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg and 10.8 apg)--but all of those things will matter very much now that the Rockets are facing a complete team.

Westbrook averaged a series-high 39 mpg versus Houston and the Thunder easily outplayed the Rockets during those minutes; Houston advanced based largely on outplaying Oklahoma City during the 9 mpg that Westbrook sat. Bench players Lou Williams (18.8 ppg), Eric Gordon (13.6 ppg) and Nene 13.6 on .848--that is not a typo--FG%) destroyed the Thunder; those players are all proven NBA veterans but they are not going to dominate against the Spurs the way that they did against the Thunder.

San Antonio will win because…the Spurs will not commit silly fouls, they will hold the Rockets to between 100-105 ppg and they are well-equipped not only to execute in the half court but also to selectively play at a fast tempo.

The Spurs have a sustained championship-contending pedigree over the past two decades that is rivaled in professional sports only by the New England Patriots. The first two San Antonio championship teams (1999, 2003) were focused on a Twin Towers attack (Tim Duncan/David Robinson) that played at a slow tempo and were stifling defensively. After Robinson retired and Duncan aged, the Spurs' approach evolved. Defense has remained a calling card but the offensive attack is more wide open and incorporates the three point shot, particularly from the corner (because the corner three is a valuable shot, as it is closer to the hoop than any other spot behind the three point arc).

Kawhi Leonard began his career looking like an improved version of Bruce Bowen but now he is the best two-way player in the league; that does not mean that he is the MVP, an honor that should go to Westbrook in recognition of his record-setting production while leading an undermanned team to the sixth seed in the Western Conference, but he is an MVP caliber player. Leonard has no skill set weaknesses as a player but he is not as explosive or dominant as Westbrook in terms of scoring, rebounding and passing; Leonard is a more efficient scorer and a more effective defensive player but some of his superiority over Westbrook in those areas is a result of playing with a better overall team.

The Rockets rely heavily on drawing fouls, shooting open three pointers and scoring 110-plus ppg; they are unlikely to be consistently successful in any of those endeavors versus the Spurs: the Spurs will emphasize not fouling Harden and Williams (who both benefited from many stupid fouls committed by the Thunder in the first round), they will run the Rockets off of the three point line and they will shave at least 10 ppg off of the Rockets' 115.3 ppg regular season scoring average.

Other things to consider: The Spurs defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 4-2 in the first round. The Grizzlies are often described as a team no one wants to face (or words to that effect), but the Spurs have defeated the Grizzlies in four out of their last five playoff series. The Spurs' margins of victory in this year's series were 29, 14, 13 and seven, while Memphis had an 11 point win and a two point win at the buzzer in overtime. That works out to an 8.3 ppg differential, which is rather sizeable.

Houston's ppg differential versus the Oklahoma Thunder was comparable (8.6) but after the Rockets' 31 point game one blowout the next four games were decided by four, two, four and six points. The Rockets enjoyed an advantage in every matchup other than Westbrook-Harden and still struggled to advance.

This series should be a San Antonio sweep but the Rockets are a high variance team (they might have a home game during which they sink 15 or 20 three pointers) and the Spurs have had more clunkers this season than usual, so I expect the Spurs to win in five games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:02 AM



At Friday, April 28, 2017 4:12:00 AM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

I have Spurs in 6 mainly because they have been a little spotty.

A few weeks ago I said that the jury was still out on whether or not Kawhi is a true MVP level player mainly because he hasn't had a MVP caliber playoff series. He has officially shut me up. You mentioned that Kawhi does not have a weakness in his game, but he's not an elite play-maker, though I wouldn't call that weakness.

At Friday, April 28, 2017 4:13:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

"The Rockets enjoyed an advantage in every matchup other than Westbrook-Harden"

I agree with most of what you wrote, but I have a small nit to pick with that- I don't think there's a GM in the league (salary notwithstanding) who'd take Clint Capela over Steven Adams.

Gibson is probably a better overall player than Anderson, but Anderson is probably a wash in a vacuum, but Anderson makes way more sense for Houston than Gibson makes for OKC, if that makes sense.

The biggest difference is that Houston's bench is really stacked (Gordon/Williams/Nene are all good) while OKC's bench could charitably be described as a diaper-fire.

As for MEM/SAS, I was sad Tony Allen missed the series. It would have been interesting to see if he could have neutered Kawhi at all, let alone enough to compensate for his own negative impact on Mem's offense. It's a shame Memphis has never been able to find a single truly good two-way wing player, because Conley and Gasol are real-deal guys with wide skillsets who play hard on both ends, don't flop (shocking for a European big) and are by all accounts great teammates.

At Friday, April 28, 2017 12:03:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Leonard is not an elite playmaker but that is not necessarily his primary role in that system. Passing/playmaking is not a weakness in his overall skill set.

At Friday, April 28, 2017 12:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Nene destroyed Adams (and any other OKC big in his path) in this series.

OKC lost every matchup but one and still was competitive in four of the five games. Westbrook's fourth quarter field goal percentage is perhaps obscuring the fact that this was actually one of the most amazing individual playoff series performances in pro basketball history--and certainly among the top five in terms of the best player on a team that lost in the first round.

If Westbrook had launched fewer fourth quarter FGAs the result would have been the same but his overall FG% would have been much higher and it would be clear even to the skeptics how tremendously well he played. Nevertheless, in this particular small sample size the plus/minus numbers really do tell the story: he carried a very deficient team to within a few possessions of beating the number three seed.

At Friday, April 28, 2017 1:11:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I'd agree that Nene had his way, I was just looking at the starting lineups. Nene's true "matchup" was Kanter, but you're not wrong that he had little trouble with Adams, either.

I think Adams beat Capela, but if you define matchups as "all centers on one team vs all centers on the other" than Houston certainly got the best of the position overall.

At Friday, April 28, 2017 3:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

SA gave up 98ppg during the regular season with a pace ranked 27th. They gave up 96.3ppg to MEM, who ranked 19th in team offense and actually plays slower than SA with a pace ranked 28th. SA now faces the #2 ranked offense and #3 team in pace. MEM had 2 games scoring only 82 points. HOU shouldn't come close to having even one such game near this. For their 4 regular season encounters, HOU scored at least 100 each time and averaged 103ppg. Based on the averages, I'd expect HOU to score at least around 105 each game with each game being very close. SA ranked #2, while HOU ranked #3 in point differential during the regular season, which is a great indicator of postseason success. HOU scored well vs OKC, but their 3-point shooting overall stunk. I suspect they'll do better with this, though do worse in other areas.

If MEM sans Tony Allen can make SA work as hard as they did to beat them in 6 and SA continues to play vs HOU like they did vs MEM, HOU will win. But, I'd expect SA to play better than they did vs MEM and prevail. SA has often been a roller coaster team in the playoffs, hard to know what to expect from them. Sometimes they do awesome, and sometimes they play flat.

Nene had one great game and a couple of ok games. 90-95% of his shots came from being spoon-fed the ball for layups/dunks. Adams didn't have nearly as many of these opportunities. I'd rather have 9mpg more from Adams and much greater defense. OKC's defense was atrocious when Adams sat.

For the starters for the series, OKC had advantages at PG, SF, PF, and C. Capela struggled some and Anderson stunk. Ariza played great defense, but stunk offensively. Roberson was better defensively than Ariza and surprisingly much better offensively. Beverley had a roller coaster series, was in foul trouble a lot, and didn't play that high of minutes, but overall he did play well and better Oladipo. The difference in the series was the bench. As I suspected, OKC's starters were better than HOU's starters, but the HOU's bench was much better than OKC's bench. HOU isn't deep, only playing 8, but each of their 3 reserves are very good reserves. The 8 games difference between HOU/OKC wasn't that big, and you'd think the series would have a lot of close games, even if only 4-5 games long, while the better team(HOU) would likely prevail.

David, how do you know the result would be the same if RW didn't shoot so many bad 4th quarter shots and abandon the offense? I don't necessarily blame him that much for this. But, it was obvious he was tiring in the 4th. He should've at least tried to run the offense and save valuable energy, especially since his minutes played were so precious.

At Friday, April 28, 2017 6:38:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Nick F,
on the flip side of Allen's absence, his minutes went to better offensive players who shot the ball well from the perimeter. They opened up the offense for the Grizzlies.

As for the Rockets, they will not be as challenging as the Grizzlies, because they are much easier to score on, and their offense is a lot more one-dimensional.

However. I wouldn't put Leonard on Harden to start the game. He's too big, and gets easily screened on the perimeter. Danny Green is a better choice to guard Harden for the majority of the game (leave Parker on the Pitbull Beverly), because he's almost as good defending on the perimeter, and he does not have to conserve energy on offense. Then come the fourth? Sicc Sugar K on Harden!

This Spurs team seems to be more resilient and tougher than past editions who were more talented.

David, are you doing analyses of the other second round matchups as well?

At Friday, April 28, 2017 7:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, I will be posting previews for each individual playoff series this year, like I used to do before Law School. I also have some thoughts about previous comments in this thread and I will post those thoughts within the next day or so.

At Friday, April 28, 2017 11:59:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Point differential is indeed usually a good indicator of postseason success but I am not convinced that is the case for D'Antoni-coached teams. We'll see.

It's funny that you consider the Spurs a "roller coaster" playoff team. In the past 18 years, the Spurs have won five championships, lost in the Finals once and reached the WCF three other times. So, on average they made it to at least the WCF every other year for nearly two decades.

In contrast, Morey has run the Rockets since 2007. During the past nine years, the Rockets have lost in the first round four times, missed the playoffs three times and advanced past the first round twice. In the Harden era, the numbers are three first round losses, one WCF appearance and a second round appearance so far this season (which is Morey's 10th).

I would much rather ride the Spurs' "roller coaster" than the Rockets' "roller coaster." How many WCF appearances do you expect from Houston in the next 5-10 years? Do you think they will match the every other year "roller coaster" of the Spurs?

Westbrook did not "abandon the offense." He IS the offense. When he sat out--as I documented in an earlier article--OKC was literally outscored at a pace that would be equivalent to 224-64 over the course of 48 minutes. Your solution to this is that Westbrook should play 48 minutes (or 43 or 45 or whatever). My point is that OKC's offense sans Westbrook is garbage--and it is apparent to any objective observer that not only can OKC not score without Westbrook but his teammates have no interest in doing much with the ball in the fourth quarter. Roberson is running away from Harden because he is scared to shoot free throws! If Westbrook did not shoot as much in the fourth quarter, then we would see that same wonderful OKC offense that we see when Westbrook sits.

Westbrook averaged about 9 ppg in the fourth quarter during the regular season--and he did not put up those numbers by refusing to shoot. OKC needs for Westbrook to shoot in the fourth quarter to have a chance to win.

At Saturday, April 29, 2017 6:16:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


Oh, totally. I think Allen's D is more of an asset than his O is a liability, but that's definitely factor. I mostly just wanted to see if he could slow down Kawhi, and if the Spurs could adapt if he could.

At Sunday, April 30, 2017 12:41:00 AM, Blogger Awet M said...

Nick F,

Allen is more than ever a liability in these days of small ball. The Warriors turned their 2015 series around vs the Grizzlies once Kerr began guarding Allen with Bogut. Allen shot what, in the low 30% outside of the paint?


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