After eliminating the Memphis Grizzlies 4-2 in the opening round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs now prepare for a second-round series against one of their in-state rivals, the Houston Rockets. The Rockets sent Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder packing after just five games, and now the other two MVP candidates, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden, will see their teams duel against each other.
In their four regular season games, the Spurs won the series 3-1 against Houston, but, it wasn’t like one team had a clear advantage against the other, as the Spurs only outscored the Rockets by eight total points in the four meetings. Something else to consider when looking back at the four regular season meetings was that both teams were missing some of their core players in the meetings, and for the Rockets, their last matchup with the Spurs was the lone one where their current team with Lou Williams on the roster faced San Antonio.
For San Antonio in their four regular season meetings against the Rockets, their defense was tested a bit, as San Antonio scored 107.5 Points Per 100 Possessions, while Houston scored 103.5 PP/100 against the Spurs’ defense. The Spurs’ goal is usually to keep teams below 100 points in a game, but even though San Antonio won three of their matchups against the Rockets, Houston still scored 100 or more points in all four meetings.
So, using both game film and numerous stats, the Spurs versus Rockets series will be broken down, with first exploring Houston’s offense.
The Rockets’ Offense
Let’s first begin by looking at the Rockets’ projected depth chart. In their first-round series against the Thunder, Rockets Head Coach Mike D’Antoni kept the Rockets’ rotation short with only eight players. Now that Sam Dekker is healthy and because Houston will face Leonard’s playmaking ability, there’s a good chance Dekker could get minutes in the series if Trevor Ariza gets into foul trouble or he needs a break and the Rockets need another wing to guard Leonard. For now, the players in orange are projected to be active on the playoff roster, while the players in blue are projected to be inactive for Houston.
The next chart looks at the Rockets’ core playmakers, based on their usage percentage for the season (red) and in the playoffs (black). For the Spurs’ defense, they went from a series of trying to defend one playmaking guard (Mike Conley), and now they’re going to face a team in Houston that has four playmaking guards in Harden, Eric Gordon, Williams and Patrick Beverley.
This next chart shows where the Rockets mainly got their points from in the opening round of the playoffs.
|Points in the Paint||45.7%|
Though it’s only a five-game sample, it’s clear the Rockets only want their points coming from three specific areas – the paint, the 3-point line and the free throw line. Houston wants to avoid the non-paint two at all costs, as they showed against the Thunder defense in round one.
The next chart shows how the Rockets’ offense performed in specific offensive categories in round one and how the Spurs’ defense fared in taking away those specific categories in round one. Once again, keep in mind that these are very small sample sizes for both teams.
|Rockets Offense in POs||Spurs’ Defense in POs|
|Offensive Rating (PP/100)||109.7 PP/100||Defensive Rating (PP/100)||107.3 PP/100|
|Field Goal %||45.6%||OPP Field Goal %||44.9%|
|3-Point %||28.4%||OPP 3-Point %||38.6%|
|Points in Paint||51.6||OPP Points in Paint||39.7|
|Second Chance Points||18.4||OPP Second Chance Points||8.2|
|Transition Points||6.6||OPP Transition Points||12.7|
|Free Throw Attempts||33.6||OPP Free Throw Attempts||20.3|
|Offensive Rebounds||10.6||OPP Offensive Rebounds||7.7|
One of the surprises of the opening round of the playoffs was how Memphis’ offense was actually able to put some 100+ scoring games on the Spurs’ defense, though Memphis didn’t show that capability during the regular season, as they ranked 19th in offense during the regular season with 104.7 PP/100. The Spurs’ defense mainly had trouble containing the Conley Pick & Roll, as Conley could get by multiple defenders and into the paint, where he could either try to score or kick out to a shooter. Conley also got favorable matchups against some of the Spurs’ big men like Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and David Lee when the Spurs were forced to switch the P&R.
While the Rockets had a tough 3-point shooting series against the Thunder (7% below their 3-point season percentage), they might feel confident knowing that the Grizzlies, who aren’t known as a 3-point shooting team, came away from their series from the Spurs shooting close to 39% for the series. Part of the Grizzlies’ high 3-point percentage was due to the scheme of the Spurs’ defense. Many times, the Spurs’ help defenders would leave some of the Grizzlies’ wing players open to help on double teams in the low post with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, or San Antonio would try to trap the Conley P&R or send extra help in the paint anticipating drives from Conley.
Some key areas where the Spurs’ defense will be tested against the Rockets are in defending the rim, where the Rockets scored 51.6 of their points in the paint, in second chance opportunities, where the Rockets grabbed 10.6 offensive boards and scored 18.4 second chance points, and at the free throw line, where Houston got to the line 33.6 times per game. On the points in the paint battle, Houston’s four guards plus Nene and Clint Capela continued to put pressure on the Thunder frontline in attacking the rim, and when the Thunder went small, it made their interior defense even more susceptible to attacks at the rim. The Spurs have continually wanted to stay away from going small, so they can always have a big near the rim for protection, but with the Rockets running lineups with Ariza at the 4, it might test whether the Spurs want to match them with small ball or try to win the battle with two bigs. Because the Rockets shoot so many 3s, the chances for unusual offensive rebounds favor the Rockets with most rebounds going long, which could put the ball in the hands of a wing player. The Spurs’ guards must be active on the boards in the event Houston’s long-range misses end up further away from the Spurs’ frontcourt players. Lastly, the free throw battle will be the ultimate test for the Spurs’ defense. Can they keep Houston, and more specifically Harden from visiting the foul line and putting the Spurs’ best defenders in foul trouble?
Before discussing the observations and stats from the Rockets and Spurs’ matchups during the regular season, it’s important to look at how the Rockets were recently playing against the Thunder in the playoffs. Here were a few notes on the series after watching film on all five games.
ROCKETS NOTES ON OFFENSE VS THUNDER
– Harden and Beverley can both throw the lob off the P&R to Capela for the alley-oop dunk.
This was something Harden and Capela were also able to do against the Spurs in the regular season, whether the 5 was Gasol, Aldridge or Dewayne Dedmon, as the video clip below will show.
For the Spurs, defensively, they’ll have to live with giving something up on defense any time Houston runs the 2/5 P&R with Harden and Capela. San Antonio’s bigs like to drop back to try to prevent a Harden drive toward the rim, which allows Capela to roll past them back pedaling and jump in the air to catch the lob. To take the lob away, San Antonio’s bigs will have to be ok with giving Harden the mid-range look and staying with Capela for the lob.
– Harden, Beverley, Gordon and Williams can all initiate the P&R from any angle on the floor.
Every Rocket on the floor can set a screen and roll on the P&R. Where most teams use traditional P&Rs like 1/4 or 1/5 P&Rs, or in the Spurs’ case, 3/4 & 3/5 P&Rs with Leonard as the ball handler, the Rockets can get even more creative on the fly with their P&Rs, as they can run 2/1 P&Rs with someone like Harden as the ball handler and Williams or Beverley as the screener. The Spurs’ P&R coverage will have to constantly keep communication when on the floor together.
To show just how tricky the Rockets can get with their P&Rs, check out this 2/1/5 P&R action they used against the Thunder.
Here’s the clip from the game film.
– Harden likes to get bigs on switches in ISO situations.
In the first game of the season, Harden torched Gasol when he got him in 1-on-1 matchups, much like he did to Enes Kanter in the last playoff series. The Spurs changed Gasol’s P&R coverage in ISO situations when he got switched onto Harden in the other regular season games by making Gasol drop to take away a driving lane for Harden. So, in the event Harden gets Gasol in a P&R, it won’t be surprising to see Gasol back off a bit, allowing a potential mid-range jumper to Harden with help flanked behind him in the event Harden tries to drive. For the most part, when Harden got a switch with Aldridge on the P&R, the Spurs let Aldridge defend Harden 1-on-1, and multiple times Harden tried to shoot a contested three over Aldridge. The Spurs lived with Harden making tough contested 3s over Aldridge.
– Harden has a good outlet passing ability when he grabs defensive rebounds.
– Nene can facilitate out of the low post.
– The Rockets like to get plenty of transition 3s.
– The Thunder defense tried to take Anderson out by staying on him on 2/4 P&Rs and on the Angle 45 Double Drag play. This allowed Harden more chances to get into the paint and attack.
The Angle 45 Double Drag play is a staple of the Rockets’ offense that Spurs also saw in the regular season. The play diagram is shown below.
The play is very dynamic in that it allows Harden or the ball handler the opportunity to attack for a score or kick out to an outside shooter, while Capela or Nene are rolling to the rim, and Anderson is flashing out for a 3-pointer. Here’s the set recently against the Thunder.
And now here’s the Rockets using that same set in the regular season against the Spurs’ defense.
Just like with any P&R coverage, communication will be key to make sure the Spurs’ defenders are on the same page when the Rockets run this set to take away as many of the possible options as it allows.
– The Rockets sometimes play small with Ariza at the 4, then Nene, Capela or Anderson at the 5.
As mentioned above, this will be where the chess match gets interesting. Does Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich try to match Houston with Leonard at the 4, or someone like Davis Bertans or Kyle Anderson? Or does Popovich stay traditional with two bigs on the floor at all times. The matchups get even more interesting when Anderson is at the 5, which allows Houston to run a 5-out spread attack with no traditional big in the paint at all.
– When Harden rests, the Rockets’ offense is run through Gordon, Williams and Beverley on the floor at the same time.
With the Rockets running many lineups with three guards who are 6’4 or shorter, this should allow Popovich to play the Tony Parker-Patty Mills lineup that was very effective in the series against the Grizzlies. In 18 minutes together in round one, the two-man lineup of Parker and Mills had a Net Rating of +72.4, as the Grizzlies couldn’t solve the Spurs’ 1/4 P&R attack with Parker as the ball handler, and Lee or Aldridge as the screener. This unit got Mills a lot of quality 3-point looks.
– Harden can facilitate the offense out of the post.
– Williams and Gordon can both comfortably shoot 3s off screens if the defense goes under.
This again is another test for the Spurs’ defense. They went from guarding Conley, the lone Grizzlies guard who could comfortably shoot 3s off screens if the defense went under, to now guarding lineups where Harden, Williams and Gordon all have that capability to shoot 3s off screens when the defense goes under screens.
– Bigs sometimes set high P&Rs near half court to get Harden running with momentum and space.
Should the Spurs’ half-court defense really constrain the Rockets’ spacing, it wouldn’t be surprising to start seeing Nene and Capela set screens near half court to get Harden running toward the defense with speed and space to either attack or kick out to a shooter, much like the Los Angeles Clippers can sometimes do with Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan.
After exploring what the Rockets did to the Thunder that can also be tied to what they might try to the Spurs, it’s time to look at what the film and data said about the team’s four regular season matchups. Here’s some notes from each game of the season on the Rockets’ offense against the Spurs’ defense, based on Houston’s’ four main playmakers.
HARDEN VS SPURS’ DEFENSE
Harden was mainly defended by Danny Green, Leonard and Jonathon Simmons during the regular season. Because the Rockets like to run P&Rs to get switches with bigs and Green off Harden, the Spurs purposely put Leonard on Anderson, so that when the Rockets ran a 2/4 P&R, Leonard would be the one switching onto Harden, not a big. While Green doesn’t give Harden much space, one way he got by Green for some easy baskets was by cutting off the ball, since Green was defending him so close.
Using the data from NBA.com/stats, I’ve built the following three tables below that show how Harden performed with Green, Leonard and Simmons on and off the floor this season.
|Harden vs Danny Green||Minutes||FGM/FGA (FG%)||FTA||Net Rating|
|Green off the floor:||53||15/29 (52%)||26||+25.6|
|Green on the court:||100||24/54 (44%)||10||-11.7|
While it’s only 100 minutes of data, if there’s one player who absolutely defends Harden very well, it’s Green. As you can see, Harden’s FG% declined by 8% with Green on the floor, he only took 10 free throws when Green was out there, and he wasn’t productive on either end for his team with Green on the floor, as Harden had a Net Rating of -11.7.
Next, here’s Harden with Leonard on and off the floor.
|Harden vs Kawhi Leonard||Minutes||FGM/FGA (FG%)||FTA||Net Rating|
|Leonard off the floor:||12||2/7 (29%)||7||+23.7|
|Leonard on the court:||141||37/76 (39%)||29||-0.8|
While Green didn’t play almost every minute Harden was on the floor, Leonard almost did. Though Leonard didn’t specifically guard Harden all the time when Green was out, he was still on the floor at the same time, whether that was someone like Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills or Simmons guarding Harden. Still, with Leonard on the floor, Harden’s efficiency for his team was a negative (-0.8 Net Rating) in those 141 minutes.
Lastly, here’s Harden with Simmons on and off the floor.
|Harden vs Jonathon Simmons||Minutes||FGM/FGA (FG%)||FTA||Net Rating|
|Simmons off the floor:||121||32/65 (49%)||24||+4.8|
|Simmons on the court:||31||7/18 (39%)||12||-11.7|
Popovich didn’t start using Simmons more often as a defender on Harden until the second game of the season, but, as you can see from Simmons’ 31 minutes on the floor with Harden, Simmons is an excellent plan b San Antonio can use against Harden should Green get into foul trouble or should Green need a breather. With Simmons on the floor, Harden still didn’t get to the foul line at a rapid rate and his efficiency was a negative (-11.7 Net Rating).
GORDON VS SPURS’ DEFENSE
One way the Rockets got Gordon to make plays was off the high 1/2 Dribble Hand Off action that was broken down earlier this season over at AnalyzingtheLeague.com. Gordon was mainly defended by Parker, Mills and Ginobili during the regular season. Against Parker, Gordon found himself getting a healthy dose of spot-up 3s as Parker often got caught helping too much off him in the paint.
BEVERLEY VS SPURS’ DEFENSE
Beverley only played in the last two meetings between the teams and he too was mainly guarded by Mills, Ginobili and Parker. Beverley often got good open spot-up 3-point looks when the Spurs’ wing defenders would help too far inside the paint.
WILLIAMS VS SPURS’ DEFENSE
Williams only played in the last matchup between the two teams, and he was mainly guarded by Mills, Parker and Simmons. Williams tried to take the Spurs’ defenders off the dribble, but he mainly had to hoist contested floaters.
The Spurs’ Offense
Now let’s look at the Spurs’ offense against the Rockets’ defense. By the end of round one, Popovich manly went with a 10-man lineup, but as seen in the series against Memphis, there were moments when he went with Kyle or Bertans as options and away from Dedmon, both due to Dedmon getting sick and because of Dedmon’s lack of offensive flexibility. The players in orange are projected to be active, while the players in blue are expected to be inactive for round two.
The opening round of the playoffs saw a shift in the Spurs’ playmakers from the regular season, as Leonard was still their go-to option, but, now Parker was their second option, and Aldridge their third option.
The next chart shows where the Spurs’ points came from in the opening round against the Grizzlies.
|Points in the Paint||35.0%|
The one area where the Spurs should get plenty of clean looks from against the Rockets’ defense is the mid-range. Houston likes to drop back on P&Rs which will allow someone like Parker or Leonard to get some pull-up jumper looks, or someone like Aldridge to get a healthy feeding of pick and pop looks.
The next chart shows the Spurs’ offensive numbers in specific categories and the Rockets’ defense against those categories in the playoffs.
|Spurs’ Offense in POs||Rockets’ Defense in POs|
|Offensive Rating (PP/100)||116.8 PP/100||Defensive Rating (PP/100)||104.3 PP/100|
|Field Goal %||48.2%||OPP Field Goal %||44.2%|
|3-Point %||41.0%||OPP 3-Point %||31.1%|
|Points in Paint||36.7||OPP Points in Paint||45.2|
|Second Chance Points||13.3||OPP Second Chance Points||13.4|
|Transition Points||9.2||OPP Transition Points||15.0|
|Free Throw Attempts||24.8||OPP Free Throw Attempts||27.0|
|Offensive Rebounds||9.8||OPP Offensive Rebounds||12.2|
How the Spurs’ offense will perform against the Rockets’ defense is interesting because of who Houston just played. During the regular season, Houston ranked 18th defensively, but against a team like the Thunder in round one that had an offense built solely around Westbrook and not much shooting or off the ball action elsewhere, Houston’s defense got to key in on Westbrook, which in turn helped Houston put up some of the effective defensive numbers listed above.
While the Spurs’ offensive attack is also built around a dominant offensive scorer in Leonard; Parker and Aldridge give San Antonio other playmakers and San Antonio still has someone like Mills, who can put a 20-point game on the scoreboard as well. We’ll now look at how the Spurs’ three main playmakers, Leonard, Parker and Aldridge performed against Houston’s’ defense in the regular season.
LEONARD VS ROCKETS’ DEFENSE
Throughout the four regular season games, Leonard was mainly defended by Trevor Ariza. Though the film showed Ariza forced Leonard into tough contested jumpers most the time, the numbers show Leonard still played quite efficiently even with Ariza on the floor.
|Leonard vs Trevor Ariza||Minutes||FGM/FGA (FG%)||FTA||Net Rating|
|Ariza off the floor:||12||2/5 (40%)||6||-7.2|
|Ariza on the court:||140||35/70 (50%)||28||+0.6|
As you can see, Ariza spent all but 12 minutes on the floor with Leonard out there as well during the regular season. While Leonard still shot 50% and got to the foul line with Ariza on the floor, he was barely efficient overall, finishing with a positive Net Rating of 0.6. On the P&R, Nene mostly switched with Leonard and forced him into contested shots, while Capela trapped the P&R and though Anderson tried to trap Leonard, Leonard could beat the Anderson trap and get to the rim. Look for Parker and Leonard to put Anderson in many P&Rs much like they did with Randolph of the Grizzlies. When Ariza guarded Leonard very closely off the ball, something the Spurs’ bigs did was run some high-low or cutting sets to get Leonard the ball for baskets without having to dribble. When Leonard got into the teeth of the defense, he had no problem finding cutters for dunks like Lee or outside shooters for 3-pointers.
PARKER VS ROCKETS’ DEFENSE
When it wasn’t Beverley guarding him, Parker was quite aggressive attacking the Rockets’ defense for layups or floaters. When Beverley was on the floor, the Rockets mainly went under screens on Parker, daring him to take the mid-range jumpers. If he’s aggressive like he was against Memphis, Parker won’t shy away from the open mid-range look. Parker also got Aldridge plenty of open pick and pop looks in his meetings against the Rockets.
ALDRIDGE VS ROCKETS’ DEFENSE
When it was Anderson guarding him, Aldridge could move Anderson in the post and command a double team. He could also get many open mid-range pick and pop looks against Anderson. When Capela defended him, Aldridge could move Capela as well in the post, but Capela was quick enough to contest Aldridge’s pick and pop jumpers. When Nene had to defend him, Aldridge couldn’t move Nene in the post and he was forced into tough over the shoulder shots against Nene. When Aldridge did post up and was fed by Green, Green got some open looks when the Rockets double teamed Aldridge in the post, as he kicked out to Green when Harden lost track of where Green was. This is something the Spurs could look to do in the series, continually keep moving when Harden is guarding someone, in the hope he’ll lose track of his assignment.
Despite having a favorable matchup in the post and getting plenty of open mid-range looks against Anderson, Aldridge didn’t have a great shooting series against Anderson. With Anderson on the floor, Aldridge shot 17/47 (36%) from the floor, he got to the free throw line 17 times, but he had a Net Rating of -4.0.
After sifting through lots of data and watching hours of film on both teams, my prediction is the Spurs win the series in six games. Though the series was close in the regular season and the Spurs only got one look at this current Rockets team, it’s the fact that the Spurs have the perfect trio of wing defenders in Green, Leonard and Simmons to constantly throw at Harden that makes it seem like San Antonio can make it difficult for the Rockets’ offense. On the defensive end, though the Rockets’ numbers looked good against the Thunder, after the defense the Spurs just faced with Memphis, which was a top-10 unit in the regular season, it seems like San Antonio now has more counters for its offense when one defensive look is thrown at them during different times in the game.