Rockets must shoot better from three to get past the Spurs in round two

James Harden and Kawhi Leonard
Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard defending Rockets guard James Harden. Photo courtesy of the Houston Chronicle.

After easily defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder (OKC) in the first round by a score of four games to one, the Houston Rockets take on the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the NBA playoffs. The Spurs finished with the second-best record in the NBA and won the season series against the Rockets, three games to one.

2017 marks the first time the Rockets have faced their interstate rivals in the playoffs since 1995, the year the Rockets won their second championship.

After facing a one-man show in Russell Westbrook in round one, the Rockets again are tasked with defending one of the league’s top players Kawhi Leonard. Only this time, the Rockets have to worry about the rest of the team too.

The Spurs have been synonymous with a “team first” brand of basketball ever since Gregg Popovich became their head coach in 1996, leading them to five championships. The Spurs share the ball more than any team and are known for continuing to pass the ball until they find the open man.

The Spurs have many great role players around their star Kawhi Leonard who are capable of making the defense pay when left open. Rockets fans remember all too clearly the struggles the team had defending Power Forward LaMarcus Aldridge when he played for Portland in the 2014 playoffs, and veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have given the Rockets many problems in the past with their craftiness on offense.

The Rockets’ x-factor this series will be Trevor Ariza, the player tasked with doing what almost seems impossible so far these playoffs: slowing down the red-hot Kawhi Leonard. Leonard is coming off a first round against Memphis where he averaged 31.2 points per game on 55 percent shooting. After a terrible first round offensively, Ariza will need to be able to knock down his open threes in order to give James Harden more room to attack.

Leonard is also one of the best defensive stoppers in the league and will most likely be guarding Harden if the game is close in the fourth quarter. Look for the Rockets to set many screens for Harden in order to get Leonard switched off of him so that he can go to work on an inferior defender.

Rockets Shooting Guard Louis Williams, who torched OKC with his scoring off the bench in round one, will have to continue to shoulder a significant load of the Rockets’ offense in order to keep pace with the Spurs’ own excellent bench lead by Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol.

Mills, who I believe will the Spurs’ x-factor in this series, has given the Rockets plenty of trouble this season with his great three-point shooting, including a game-winner in December. Rockets Shooting Guard and Defensive Specialist Patrick Beverley will need to be able to hold Mills in check by playing tight and not allowing him to get easy, open looks from behind the arc.

Prediction

There are two big things that need to happen in order for the Rockets to upset the Spurs in this series: they have to shoot much better from three than they did in the first round, and James Harden has to play extremely well. The Rockets were able to get by with bad shooting and some shaky performances from Harden in round one because OKC was not an elite opponent.

The difference between San Antonio and OKC is huge, and the Rockets will have to play much better than they did last round, which I think they will. The Rockets have had a tendency all season to play at the level of their inferior opponents and then turn around and play at a much higher level against tougher opponents, and I think they will be able to do that in this series.

One reason I am optimistic about the Rockets’ chances in this series is that even with their poor three-point shooting so far, their offense as a whole has still been very good thanks in large part to the pick and roll tandem of Harden and Nene. The Rockets are scoring 112.8 points per game in these playoffs, second only to the Golden State Warriors (119.5).

I am picking the Rockets to win this series in seven games, 4–3.


Originally published at UHCL The Signal.