The first round couldn’t have been more different for both these teams. The Rockets cruised to victory in five games, as James Harden made his MVP case in favor of Russell Westbrook. The road wasn’t as easy for the Spurs, who outlasted the Grizzlies in six games. However, Kawhi Leonard reminded the league why he deserves MVP consideration right next to Harden.
Let’s do a tale of the tape between the two superstars in this series. Harden finished the first-round averaging 33 points, six rebounds, and seven assists a game. At first glance, those numbers pop off the page. However, Harden shot a measly 41 percent from the field — and worse, 24 percent from three-point land — against Oklahoma City.
Leonard wasn’t nearly as inefficient. He put up 31 points and six boards a game against Memphis. However, Leonard shot 55 percent from field-goal range and 48 percent from downtown — against a very solid defensive Grizzlies team.
This series may very well come down to which MVP candidate can provide the most heroics. Both in-state teams match up closely, but bookies have San Antonio as -245 favorites to take the series. Houston is +205 to pull off the slight upset.
These two teams know each other very well, as a short 200 miles separate the two cities. During the regular season, the Spurs took three of the four games. The caveat here is each game went down to the wire. Two points was the difference in three of the games, while the other was a six-point game.
Furthermore, Greg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni have playoff history against each other. Who remembers D’Antoni’s Suns teams — that play eerily similar to these Rockets — falling short year after year to the more physical Spurs? That was almost a decade ago, when push-the-pace attacks were barely coming into the league.
Nowadays? That type of offense is the norm and something that’s given the Spurs problems the past two years in the postseason. Two years ago, they lost in the opening round to the Clippers, before the Thunder eliminated them a season ago. In today’s NBA, you have to be able to score, which begs the question, do the Spurs have enough offense in this series?
For what San Antonio lacks in athleticism, they make up for in discipline. Unlike Oklahoma City, the Spurs won’t beat themselves with sloppy mistakes. One of their battle-tested veterans — whether it be Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobili — will need to provide a spark in this series.
We know the Rockets won’t struggle to put up points. Even with Harden struggling on the offensive end last series, his teammates picked up the slack. Houston isn’t a one-trick pony. They have a barrage of weapons and a loaded bench to complement Harden. And they love to rain three-pointers, setting the NBA regular season record for three-pointers made and attempted.
However, against an inferior Thunder team last round, the three-point shot wasn’t clicking. The Rockets hit on just 28 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Perspective is key here. Either, that’s troubling because few teams play as stiff on defense as the Spurs, or that’s scary considering they still won the series handily, finding other ways to score.
For San Antonio, they need to slow down Harden at all costs. Harden averaged 29 points, 12 assists, and nine rebounds during the two’s regular season series. He can’t be the best player on the court if the Spurs want to advance. While Leonard, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, will surely guard him in crunch-time situations, it’s up to others to contain him the first three quarters.
Expect this series to be a thriller game in, game out. Houston has more in the tank than San Antonio. They’re younger, better rested, and deeper. Rockets will get their points one way or another, and we don’t believe the Spurs will be able to keep up in this series.
Pick: Rockets (+205)
Series outcome: six games