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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Spurs Rout Rockets, Tie Series at 1-1

Written off as dead by the "experts," the San Antonio Spurs gave Mike D'Antoni some flashbacks to the Spurs-Suns playoff series from last decade en route to beating his Rockets 121-96 in game two of the Western Conference semifinals. Kawhi Leonard finished with 34 points on 13-16 field goal shooting plus eight assists and seven rebounds for the Spurs. Leonard received ample support from Tony Parker (18 points on 8-13 field goal shooting in 26 minutes before suffering what appeared to be a serious knee injury late in the game) and LaMarcus Aldridge (15 points, eight rebounds). Ryan Anderson led the Rockets with 18 points on 7-9 field goal shooting and eight rebounds.

James Harden finished with 13 points on 3-17 field goal shooting, along with 10 assists and seven rebounds. He shot 1-9 from the field in the first half and the Rockets trailed 65-55 at halftime. Harden did not attempt a single free throw in the first half and it was evident that he struggles to score against tough defense when the referees do not bail him out with free throws. In contrast to Harden's subpar performance, Leonard dominated the first half with  20 points on 7-9 field goal shooting. 

Houston's game one blowout win was an aberration, despite the apocalyptic wailing of various overreacting commentators who are apparently quite eager to bury the Spurs. The Spurs beat the Rockets three out of four times during the regular season and there is no reason that the Spurs cannot maintain that head to head winning percentage in the playoffs. Players and teams who heavily rely on three point shooting but are not consistent with their defensive effort will inevitably be high variance performers. Phrasing this a different way, if the Rockets get hot they can smoke any team once during a playoff series but it is unlikely that they could sustain that kind of shooting over the course of a series against a well prepared team. The Rockets are not the Golden State Warriors, a team that can rely on defense on those nights when the three point shots are not connecting.

As a high variance player whose playoff performances will often fall short of his regular season output, Harden is similar to Gilbert Arenas and this is what I wrote about Gilbert Arenas after his 60 point game several years ago against the L.A. Lakers:
Some 20 Second Timeout readers asserted that since Arenas shoots a good three point percentage that his low overall field goal percentage and high number of three point attempts should be excused but I responded that if Arenas shoots 6-9 from three point range in one playoff game and 1-9 in the next that the Wizards will go 1-1 at best in those games despite the fact that his three point percentage would be .389. Having your point guard jacking up 8 or 9 three pointers a game--particularly on a team that is not good defensively anyway and has poor court balance--is not a formula for postseason success. Look again at the numbers: some of the categories are close, but Bryant outdid Arenas in every single area and his team won by 16 points in regulation. So, in the two Lakers-Wizards games this season, the Wizards won once in overtime when Arenas hit a much higher percentage of his shots than normal (and shot a very high number of free throws) and then got routed at home when Arenas shot 3-15 from three point range.
One might argue that as the visiting team the Rockets accomplished their goal, obtaining a split in San Antonio. In theory, Houston is in a great position to win this series simply by protecting home court. The reality of playoff basketball is quite different. As TNT's Reggie Miller noted, typically the underdog needs two road wins to advance, because the favorite will likely win at least one road game.

Am I overreacting to San Antonio's win in a similar fashion to the way that I am asserting that some people overreacted to Houston's win? No; the difference between the Spurs' blowout and the Rockets' blowout is that what the Spurs did is repeatable: they played smart, aggressive basketball at both ends of the court, while the Rockets' win was fueled by record-setting three point shooting that is unlikely to be duplicated again during this series.

These two games are an excellent microcosm of why D'Antoni and Harden do better in the regular season than the playoffs: it is one thing to deal with a relentless barrage of three pointers during the fourth game in five nights in the regular season with no time to prepare and quite another thing to counter this helter skelter style when your team is well-prepared and well-rested during the playoffs. The Spurs just finished a physical, grind it out series against Memphis and, as Miller suggested during the game two telecast, they likely underestimated the Rockets. After all, the Rockets were involved in several close games with the Oklahoma City Westbrooks, so why would the Spurs think that the Rockets would be much of a challenge?

The Rockets deserve a certain level of respect and concentration but once those two factors are in place--as they appear to be now--the Spurs are in great shape in this matchup.

It will be entertaining to read and listen to all of the "experts" trying to explain this game, particularly after they wrote off the Spurs as too old, too slow and too big to compete with the Rockets!

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM

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2 Comments:

At Tuesday, May 09, 2017 11:38:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

David,

Agree with your assertions.
JAmes Harden 9 turnovers. San Antonio Spurs 7 turnovers.
If harden cannot get himself up to play even decent defense during the playoffs, I don't think anyone else's asertion that he could be the best player on a championship team holds water. Watching him play matador defense with the game on the line during 4th quarter and ot, I kept thinking how he could lead the rockets in the dugout.

 
At Wednesday, May 10, 2017 2:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jackson:

The game and series were there for the taking and Harden fell apart down the stretch. As I wrote in my game recap, it was a quintessential Harden performance: he put up big individual numbers but did not have an impact on winning when it mattered most.

I know that his fans will remain unconvinced but that's fine. I've made my peace with the reality that not everyone is going to agree with everything I write, no matter how often the events transpire the way that I predicted.

 

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