Texas showdown: Offense versus defense shifts to Houston

Marco Benitez
Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley (2) goes up for a shot as San Antonio Spurs' Danny Green (14) and Kawhi Leonard (2) defend during the first half of Game 2 in a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

If you thought that after the grueling six-game series versus the Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs would overwhelm the Houston Rockets with their defensive might, well you probably have another thought coming. 

James Harden and Co. put out one of the biggest statements yet in these Playoffs, with a 126-99 rout of the #2 team in the league, and the #1 defensive team of the regular season. 

By halftime of game one, it was pretty clear that the three-point shooting-pace-and-space offense orchestrated by the Beard was firing on all cylinders, putting up a whopping 69 points on a 12-of-27 clip from distance. Those 27 three-point attempts in the first half were a playoff record, in fact. Most expected the Spurs to come out of halftime and play inspired ball to rightthe ship, but instead, things just even more downhill from there. The Rockets, behind 44 percent three-point shooting, finished the game having jacked up 50 three’s. They converted 22, lead by as much as 39 points, and held the Spurs to just 99 points the entire game.

It was pretty clear prior to the start of the series that this would be an Offense vs Defense matchup, and game one was a perfect example of what could happen when everything goes right for the Rockets, and pretty much everything goes wrong for the Spurs. From the get-go, San Antonio had no answer for the Harden pick-and-roll, and James Harden just picked apart every defense the Spurs threw at him with those left-handed hook passes to the wing or corner to an open Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon or Lou Williams. At one point, he even dished a no-look-between-the-legs bounce pass to a cutting Clint Capella for a monstrous jam. 

For Spurs’ fans, there was nothing more painful than watching San Antonio’s frontline of LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, David Lee and even Dewayne Dedmon, get isolated guarding Harden, or rush to double him and get punished by a three-point splash on the other side of the court. With only three players scoring in double digits for San Antonio (Kawhi Leonard 21, Tony Parker 11, Jonathon Simmons 11), it was clearly not enough to pull out a win against one of the best offenses in the league. On top of that, Houston played better team basketball and was the hungrier team, dishing out 30 assists (on 40 FG attempts), compared to San Antonio’s 19, and out-hustling the Spurs on 50/50 balls.

With the Spurs embarrassed in front of their home crowd in game one, a completely different San Antonio squad showed up for game two. The Spurs came out with much better effort on both ends of the floor. Defensively, they held Harden to 1-of-6 field goals in the first half, and locked down the Rockets’ three-point shooting to just an 11-of-34 mark (after 22-of-50 in game one) for the entire game. With Kawhi now spending more possessions on Harden as his assignment, this allowed the rest of the Spurs to stay home on their matchups, thus drastically reducing number of uncontested three-point looks given up. Their other perimeter defenders – Manu Ginobili, Jonathon Simmons, Danny Green – also submitted solid performances, taking turns picking up Harden on cross matchups, switches, and in transition, not allowing him the same looks and angles he had. Offensively, they also provided a lift for Coach Pop. Green and Simmons finished with 12 and 14 points respectively, while Manu, despite finishing in single digits with just six points, also contributed five rebounds (three offensive) and three assists, with most, if not all of his contributions coming in a timely fashion. 

Five Spurs finished in double figures, a big improvement from game one. LaMarcus Aldridge seemed to have awoken from his postseason slump, finishing with 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting, Parker poured in 18 markers, but suffered a season-ending left knee injury on the way to the rim for a floater with still eight minutes remaining. Yet, despite Parker having to be carried off the floor to the locker room, San Antonio still unleashed a 33-13 fourth quarter, en route to payback for game one.

As a pivotal game three looms over the weekend in Houston, boths team have a chance to swing momentum to their side. For the Spurs, they will need to continue to defend Harden well on the pick-and-roll, because that is Houston’s bread and butter, and that is how their shooters get their open looks. Offensively, the Spurs need to keep moving the ball around and finding the best shot possible – something they veered away from in game one, where they took quick shots early in the shot clock. Patty Mills, Manu, Kawhi, and even young Dejounte Murray will likely get turns playmaking, as they’ll have to make up for Parker’s absence the rest of the way.

Houston meanwhile needs to dictate the tempo, as they did in game one. Harden needs to overcome the Spurs’ defense, despite the prospect that the two-time DPoY will cover him late in the game. He needs to break down the Spurs, force them to scramble to find his open shooters – Anderson, Gordon, Ariza, and Lou Williams – who then have to knock down those three’s, which will hopefully start falling again now that they’re back home. 

It will once again be a classic matchup of Offense vs Defense, in what will surely be the more tightly contested playoff matchup in the West.

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