It’s probably a random bit of trivia most people don’t know: The Houston Rockets were the only Western Conference team Tim Duncan never faced during the NBA Playoffs. That he faced all 13 others in the conference is crazy enough in itself and a testament to the Spurs’ consistency and his longevity, but the fact Duncan never got to take the 180-mile trip down I-10 to square off against a Texas rival during the NBA’s second season is a shame — especially if you consider what happened last time the two teams met during the postseason.
Depending on how old you were, you surely remember it well. The newly minted MVP of the league, David Robinson, was deconstructed by Hakeem Olajuwon 22 years ago in what seemed like the first installment of the John Wick franchise. It looked like a total tour of vengeance. Houston beat San Antonio in Game 6 to clinch the series before going on to become the lowest seed (6) to ever win the NBA Finals. It was a storybook ending that led to then-coach Rudy Tomjanovich reminding us, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
Since then, things in Texas have changed. Houston made a few more runs in the years that followed, but has dipped in and out of the playoffs ever since. Meanwhile, anyone reading this knows what San Antonio has done. Drafting Duncan, five titles, roughly a million consecutive 50-win seasons — we don’t have to go through it all. But the one thing we haven’t gotten since then is a Spurs-Rockets series.
We’ve seen great Spurs-centric postseason rivalries come and go over the years. Whether it was the Lakers, Mavericks, Suns, and for a couple of years a great Finals rivalry with the Heat, we’ve been witness to some wonderful postseason matchups. But this is one we’ve been unfortunate to miss for more than two decades.
The thing is, nothing about this matchup is friendly. Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni have great mutual respect for one another, but one guy has regularly gotten the better of the other. The teams haven’t liked each other for years, and each team’s fan base has harbored a hatred for the other that’s just dying to erupt.
And one of the best parts of this matchup is how the league has evolved. Both teams have changed drastically over the years, moving toward a totally different brand of basketball than the big man vs. big man matchup it was in 1995. Now it’s a tilt against the Rockets, at the forefront of the analytics movement, and the Spurs, who blend a little bit of the old school and the new.
Now, instead of The Admiral and The Dream dominating the paint, it’s The Klaw and The Beard terrorizing the perimeter. And at the same time, it’s still two MVP candidates going at one another. The game has changed, but drama is still drama, no matter how you slice it.
San Antonio took the season series 3-1, but only outscored the Rockets by a total of eight points. Each game was unique, but in the end, each was close. It’s going to be an interesting one to watch, because this will be a clash of styles.
The Spurs have moved away from the “Beautiful Game” style they became known for years ago when they won their last title. They’re now much more post-centric with isolation mixed in, and they play at a very slow pace. Per Synergy data, the Spurs ran post up plays 9.3 percent of the time during the regular season, which was fourth most in the league. The Rockets elected to post up 2.1 percent of the time, which was far and away last in the NBA.
And it’s not a surprise the Rockets aren’t interested in playing that style of basketball, which makes this series all the more interesting. The Spurs used to be very pick-and-roll heavy, but they’re nothing like what Houston has been during these playoffs.
Houston ball-handlers (mostly James Harden) finished pick-and-roll sequences 18.2 percent of the time during the regular season, which was top 10 in terms of frequency in the NBA, per Synergy. That number exploded to more than 30 percent during the first round of the playoffs, which is more than any other team by a landslide. And they scored more than a point per possession in those situations — a great number.
And that’s where things get interesting. The Memphis Grizzlies didn’t run much pick-and-roll during the regular season and didn’t run much of it during the first round. But when they did, the Spurs didn’t defend it well, giving up 1.05 points per possession. The Rockets are an entirely different animal.
This is where the series will be decided: Can the Spurs effectively corral Harden in the pick-and-roll while still defending the smorgasbord of shooters Houston puts on the floor?
San Antonio is going to score. The Rockets’ defense effectively contained Russell Westbrook in the first round, and there just wasn’t enough around him to make up for his poor shooting efficiency once he got tired late in games. But there are more players and shooters to deal with and a better offensive structure when you’re talking about the Spurs, and Houston’s defense, generally speaking, is average at best.
But the Spurs are built to work inside-out. Their strength is in the frontcourt, not necessarily the backcourt. Tony Parker was great in the first round, as was Patty Mills, but Manu Ginobili and Danny Green were afterthoughts for much of the series. The question becomes, how much is San Antonio going to be able to play its big men against a team that’s just going to run a high spread pick-and-roll time and time again until the floodgates open?
There is this: The Rockets aren’t exactly complicated, and the Spurs have executed game plans throughout the year that have held that vaunted Houston team at bay. Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and Co. only averaged 103.5 points per 100 possessions against San Antonio during the regular season, a far cry from their 111.8 offensive-rating average. And what makes the Rockets rev is their ability to launch 3s all night long. The Spurs defend that shot very well. They’re in the top five in terms of 3-point percentage allowed and, more importantly, 3-point attempts taken.
Houston shot worse than 30 percent from the arc against the Spurs this year, and they’re coming off a series against the Oklahoma City Thunder during which it hit just 28.4 percent of its shots from deep. Not just that, but they only attempted 33 such shots per night in those five games after attempting more than 40 per night during the regular season. The Rockets are good enough to beat you even if you limit their 3-point attempts, but make no mistake about it, the deep ball is where their bread is buttered.
I mentioned before, the Spurs are going to score consistently. The question is, how high is the ceiling?
Even given all the high-powered offenses in the playoffs, San Antonio leads the way with a 116.8 offensive rating in the postseason. But the ball doesn’t zip around the way it did in years past. As good as their defense is, they’re going to need to keep that scoring up to stay with Houston. And the Rockets are going to test the Spurs’ infrastructure.
Will the Spurs switch on Harden in those pick-and-roll situations and deal with the mismatches? Will they play them straight up and offer help once Harden gets in the paint? Will they stick to shooters and live with whatever happens in the middle of the floor? Are we going to see more small-ball than we’re accustomed to seeing with San Antonio, given there may be situations where you simply can’t put Pau Gasol and, to a lesser extent, David Lee on the floor? Gregg Popovich closed games with Parker and Mills playing together, a two-man group that only played 24 minutes together at the same time during the regular season. During the first round, they played 18 minutes together. And it worked insanely well. The problem is, can you roll out that lineup against the backcourts the Rockets will put out there in crunch time?
And on the Rockets' side, how are they going to deal with Kawhi? He was a one-man wrecking ball throughout the Memphis series. Does Houston double and trap to get the ball out of his hands or go straight up? As I just mentioned, the Spurs don’t whip the ball around in the same way they used to, but once you double and leave a soft spot in the defense elsewhere, San Antonio will still pick you apart. How do you deal with the size advantage San Antonio has, particularly when it comes to LaMarcus Aldridge?
Regardless of how it shakes out, this is almost a lock to be one of, if not the best series of the entire playoffs. The teams are so different, yet so evenly matched, and they both want badly to kick the other’s ass.And even though it’s only a quick couple of hours down the Interstate between the two cities, the fans waiting for this one couldn’t be farther apart. There’s bad blood, and it’s been simmering for years.