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Game 1 Redux

2017 Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio 104, Houston 125
Series tied 2-2

When the Rockets are cooking, they look near unbeatable.

The Rockets want to play fast, and they want to shoot a lot of threes. In Games 2 and 3, when the Spurs won, they were able to slow the Rockets down, and limit the long range shots.

Some of that shotmaking is just luck of the draw. On any given night, they might make 50% of their threes, no matter how well you guard. On those nights you’re not winning.

Game 4 was one of those nights. While the Spurs kept it close in the first half, it always seemed like they were one good run away from losing control of the game. The third quarter was that run.

While the shooting is largely out of their control, the pace is not. The Rockets made a concerted effort to get out in transition, and the Spurs took the bait. Same as Game 1. You have to remain disciplined in your pace against this team, and the Spurs were unable to do so.

Of course, it helps for the Spurs to make shots. As we’ve discussed, sometimes the best defense against Houston is a good offense. As we know, these Spurs are prone to shooting droughts. Miss enough shots, and the Rockets will romp all over you.

Houston may have also inadvertently stumbled into another edge. With Nene going down with a groin injury (Editor’s note: Left Adductor Tear) and Clint Capela saddled with foul trouble, Houston went super small with Ryan Anderson at center. While no defensive juggernaut, the Spurs had no way of stopping this lineup, and it effectively ruined their best defensive counter to keep the big man clogging the lane. With Anderson playing Center and never venturing into the paint, the Spurs had to concede the lane or concede a wide open 3. There is no in between.

The Spurs can remain stubborn and stay big with one of the traditional Houston centers playing, but not when they go this small. The evidence was there in the third quarter: Houston started Eric Gordon instead of Anderson, going smaller against the Pau Gasol-LaMarcus Aldridge lineup. Eventually Anderson came in for Capela, with Houston remaining ultra-small. In both iterations, the Rockets just feasted on the slow and lumbering Spurs.

Staying big has advantages, none of which the Spurs could fully exploit. They got Gasol and Aldridge isolated in the post several times against smaller players. But the payoff wasn’t enough to keep up with the Rockets’ threes. The Spurs also couldn’t make the small Rockets pay on the glass, as they were ineffective collecting offensive rebounds and getting second chance points (another way to really slow the game down and muck it up, like in Game 3).

Moving into Game 5, the Spurs have tough decisions to make. Nene is out for the remainder of the season, so it’s going to be Capela and Anderson as the only centers, and likely rarely together. All small, all the time. Will the Spurs attempt to counter? Will they try to win going big, like in Games 2 and 3, even though the Rockets have gotten much smaller (and much harder to guard)? Will they try to go small, with Kawhi Leonard at the 4 and only one traditional big at a time (likely Gasol or Aldridge, both of whom will have a size advantage in those small lineups)?

This is what makes this series so fascinating. It is two really great teams playing really different styles. Right now, it looks like the team who ‘gets their way’ more often will win the series. But there’s another way: the team who can beat the other at their style can also win the series. We know the Rockets can’t match the Spurs in size (they literally don’t have the personnel for it); can the Spurs match the Rockets in speed and “smallness”?

More pertinently: is Pop willing to try?

This series may be won or lost on Pop’s willingness to be flexible or his obstinate rigidity in sticking to his system. The answer will only be given in hindsight.

Or it might just come down to whether the Rockets can hit a bunch of threes in two more games. Sure makes you feel helpless.

Game 5 is Tuesday night in San Antonio.

Go Spurs Go.

Take It Back

2017 Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio 103, Houston 92
Spurs lead series 2-1

Faced with a tough decision, Pop chose the most conventional and also highest risk option.

It seemed almost impossible that Pop would start Murray in a 2nd round playoff game. The regular season is one thing; but Pop is loathe to trust rookies in the playoffs, and Murray’s growth had been retarded by a nagging injury that kept him out the last month of the season.

To be fair, Murray was shaky. Being thrown into your first playoff start on the road is one thing; having it also be against Patrick Beverley is another. He is to PGs what Tony Allen is to wings. He is relentless and will prey on the slightest hint of weakness. The first few possessions were bad. And yet, Murray remained poised and collected, and finished his 14 minutes a team high +14. Basically, he didn’t lose the game, and that was enough.

Elsewhere, LaMarcus finally showed up to the series, playing tough late and really giving the team the push in the 4th quarter that got them the margin that would eventually lead to victory. It was an ugly game all-around, and LaMarcus embodied the team’s “pounding the rock” mantra; in the 4th quarter, that rock finally broke.

The Spurs turned it over 21 times, leading to 25 Rockets points. The Rockets shot 36% from the field. Kawhi was decidedly average (by his standards); Harden scored 47% of the Rockets total points, yet seemed to drift in and out of the game. It was the type of playoff game we’ve become accustomed to seeing over the years, the type of grind-it-out affair that leaves the losing team broken down and demoralized. The type of game that favors the Spurs in this series.

We’ve now seen three very distinct games in this series. A blowout; an offensive battle that is decided by one team’s late run; and a grind-it-out defensive battle decided by one team making fewer mistakes in the 4th quarter. The first two types  likely favor the Rockets, while the third favors the Spurs.

But the Spurs stole that second game, out-offensiing the second best offense in the league. They now sit in prime position to regain control of the series.

The question is: which type of game do we think is most emblematic of this series? What will see more of in Games 4 and 5? The Spurs defense seems to have figured out a working solution to the Rockets offense; but the Rockets offense also seems poised to have a big game at some point soon.

The deeper series run, the more likely they are to become back-and-forth grind-it-out in the mud types of series. Advantage Spurs. The Spurs also seem to have better poise, better execution, and better trust in their system. Advantage Spurs. But the Rockets might have an offensive gear that the Spurs can’t match, and a wild-card (3-point shooting) that the Spurs won’t match. Advantage Rockets.

After three games, I feel like we’re no closer to understanding this series than before Game 1. With the loss of Parker, it becomes even more confusing. If this game was a neutral game for Murray, what is more likely moving forward: a positive game or a negative game?

We’ve seen one great Kawhi performance, one good but not great performance, and one underwhelming performance. Which is more likely in the next two games?

Harden has been up and down the whole series, even vacillating within games. He looks a bit banged up (and is possibly sick). Which Harden seems most likely to appear?

Can Aldridge repeat Game 3’s performance?

Can Gasol continue to fortify the interior defense?

Will the Rockets shooters regain their shooting touch? Game 1 excepted, they actually haven’t been shooting well this post-season, despite their easy series win in Round 1.

Will the Spurs bench outplay the Rockets bench in Houston again?

144 minutes of data, and there are still more questions than answers.

Game 4 will be huge. A Spurs win would put a vice-grip on this series. Much like in Game 2 with the Rockets, the natural tendency will be for the Rockets to play desperate and for the Spurs to ease up a bit. The Rockets are favorites. I hope like hell the Spurs get greedy and steal another one on the road.

Game 4 is Sunday night.

Go Spurs Go.

Elation and Deflation

2017 Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio 121, Houston 96
Series tied 1-1

Let’s start with what we can control: let’s start with the game.

After the blowout in Game 1, we were all eager to see how the Spurs would respond. Would there be huge line-up adjustments? Strategic tweaks?

The big adjustment was starting Gasol in place of Lee, a move that doesn’t scream “genius stroke”. But it worked. There are a couple of things at play here. First, you could argue that the primary letdown in Game 1 was the defense. But against these Rockets, sometimes a better offense is what allows for better defense, by preventing transition and slowing the game down a bit. Want better D? Play better O. Gasol certainly helps that. While Lee is a great offensive player, he is not a floor spreader, while Gasol is (at least this season). So putting Gasol on the floor opens up the offense.

Second, if you’re going to go big, go big. Many people wondered if the Spurs would have to counter Houston by going small. But going small favors Houston greatly. The Spurs got here by being a big team; it’d seem foolish to abandon that one game in. Yes, there will be small-ball counters, but you have to keep your identity.

The problem with starting Lee is that he is not a big big. He plays inside, and he is crafty around the rim. But Gasol is big, tall, long, and everything else associated with being a “big”. While his reputation as a defender is poor, what that really means is that he doesn’t move well in space or defend on the perimeter well. But you know what he can do? Be big and tall and long around the rim. Much like late-career Duncan, he offers rim protection just by being tall and putting his arms straight up.

The Spurs seemed content to keep the bigs back and allow the Rockets to shoot the midrange shot they so loathe. With Gasol and Aldridge, the Spurs had the two biggest bigs out there, and were able to hold their own against the smaller Houston team.

Another way they took advantage of that size? Offensive rebounds. There are obvious advantages to being small and quick, particularly in today’s NBA, but it isn’t without sacrifice. Often, that sacrifice is rebounding. Defensive rebounds are important, but they don’t really stymie the opposing team’s offense. Offensive rebounds, on the other hand, slow down the opposing team’s offense and depress their defense. The Spurs grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, and were hounds on the glass, particularly late when they made their dominating push.

On offense, the ball also moved a lot better. This isn’t the 2014 Spurs, but this is the most they’ve looked like that team these playoffs. With 27 assists, the team found the right balance of movement and space with Kawhi dominating in isolation.

Speaking of Kawhi: he was a monster. He guarded Harden on one end, forcing him into one of his worst playoff games (all without committing a single foul). He scored 34 points on 16 shots. He had 7 rebounds and 8 assists. He had 3 steals and 1 block. He only committed 2 turnovers. He basically had the perfect game.

The defense looked better overall. More movement, more understanding, more connection. They held the Rockets to 34 threes (after giving up 50 in Game 1), often a better indicator than number made. They bothered Harden at nearly every turn, and didn’t overreact to some hot shooting from role players. Again, in that dominant 4th quarter run, they held the Rockets to 5 points over about a 9 minute span. That will win most playoff games.

Sadly, now we must get to the real headline of the game: Tony Parker’s injury. By now we know it’s a torn tendon in the quadricep that will require surgery and will likely sideline him for months.

Parker is a favorite punching bag of Spurs fans, but nobody wants to see this. Our hearts and sympathy go out to him. He might be the Spur we’re most critical of, but he is still a Spur, and he is still family. More than any other player on the team, we’ve grown up with Tony, watching him mature from a spry 19 year old into the crafty veteran he is today. Without getting into the long-term implications of this injury, we all wish a speedy recovery for him and we’ll be pulling for him the whole way.

We must dive into the immediate impact of this injury. Despite his up and down season, Parker was clearly the second best player in these playoffs. The Spurs basically went as he went. Outside of Game 4 against Memphis, when he played well, the Spurs won; he played poorly, the Spurs lost. Kawhi is the leader and dominant driving force; Parker is the bellwether.

We not only have to replace his production, we must replace his leadership. This is a team of veterans, but Tony was the guiding hand at the wheel in a way nobody else on this team has been, including Manu. Hopefully with the intelligence and heart on this team, there won’t be a vacuum created here.

His production is another story. Often when a player in injured, it’s not the back-up you worry about, it’s the back-up to the back-up. So whether he starts or doesn’t, Mills can fill a lot of Parker’s role. But then who fills Patty’s role?

Let’s start with the starters. In the regular season, we all know that Murray would get the start and Mills would stay on the bench. Will Pop still do that in the playoffs? It seems out of character for Pop to trust those Western Conference Semifinal starting minutes to a rookie. But we’ll see.

If not, Patty will get the start, and then Pop will be forced to rejigger his rotation to include more minutes for Simmons, Manu, and possibly Anderson. (Basically, bigger wing players who can handle the ball a bit.)

Either way, I expect Kawhi to get more time as the primary ball handler. But at what point are we asking too much of him. Guard Harden, score most of the points, and be the main ball handler and facilitator? That’s a lot.

Some outside the box options: Start Manu at PG. Late in the game, Pop went to strategy that I like to call medium ball. Go small, but with all wings (and one big). So you’re basically playing small (countering the Rockets small ball), but you’re still ‘bigger’ at every position. During the critical stretch, the lineup was Kawhi, Green, Simmons, Manu, and Pau or Aldridge. 4 wings and 1 big (bigger than any of their bigs). So at the PG matchup, Beverley was giving up size, and the Spurs were even or bigger at every other position. And yet, it’s still a team that can play fast and spaced.

Beverley is not a traditional PG (since Harden is the PG), so you don’t have to worry about guarding him in the traditional way. Manu could guard him. Or Green. Either way, there are favorable cross matches everywhere.

Another outside the box option: start Anderson. He basically played PG in college, and with Kawhi on the floor, you’d have two functional ball handlers.

The biggest question, outside of rotations, is playing time. Will Pop trust Murray? Or will Mills be the only PG that actually plays, and the rest will be hybrid big-small lineups?

Who is going to get more minutes? Manu should, but there is a limit to his effectiveness (though if ever there was a time for a vintage Manu stretch, this is it.) The way Simmons played in this game–his energy and athleticism were critical in that 4th quarter–I expect to see a lot more of him. This is the perfect match-up for his skills.

With Parker going down, the Rockets are likely favored the rest of the way. But I liked what I saw in Game 2, and I feel much better about our chances, with or without Parker. If we can steal one in Houston, this series gets very interesting.

Game 3 is Friday night.

Go Spurs Go.

May Day

2017 Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio 99, Houston 126
Rockets lead series 1-0

Uff da.

That was as thorough an ass-kicking as you’ll find in the NBA Playoffs. The Spurs looked like the back-ups to a D-league team, and the Rockets looked like a professional basketball team.

This was absolutely the worst-case scenario for the Spurs in this series, the game illuminating every possible scenario in which the Rockets could beat them. Are the Spurs athletic enough? Can their bigs keep up? Can they match the Rockets pace? Can they dictate the flow of the game? Can they generate enough offense to keep up? Can their defense hold up.

That’d be a resounding “NO” to every question.

So the optimist can look at this and think: there is literally no way the Rockets can play better, and no way the Spurs can play worse; so surely the remaining games will be more competitive.

To which the pessimist might say: So?

Did this game show us anything that gives even a glimmer of hope for the Spurs? Yes, the Rockets probably won’t shoot as well from deep the rest of the series. So? Yes, the Spurs will likely shoot better, and show a bit more composure, and figure out some schemes to slow the Rockets down. So? Yes, the playoffs are all about adjustments, and Game 2 is when the chess match begins. So?

What do you think the Spurs can change? Who on that roster (besides Kawhi) do you think can hang against this Rockets team?

Green can hang, but he has to hit shots. Dedmon probably needs to play as the only big who can move with any fluidity, but he showed no ability to handle the emotional pressure of the playoffs. Simmons showed the athleticism to stay on the court. Bertans has the shooting and the size to stay with the Rockets bigs. Will Pop trust them for major minutes in the second round of the Playoffs?

There are myriad problems, but it seems to start with the bigs. The Rockets will spread them out until they collapse. Lee, Gasol, and Aldridge all struggle to guard in space, and the Rockets create more space than any other team in the league. The Rockets were making a concerted effort to pick on all three of those bigs, to great effect.

Every Spurs fan is piling on to Aldridge in the aftermath in Game 1. He derserves it. We brought him in to be the #2 star behind Kawhi; while the loss is not his fault, his inability to fill that role is a big reason the Spurs have underperformed in the playoffs since his arrival. He has to give the team something. Scoring would be nice, but it can also be rebounds, ball movement, screens, anything. Monday night, it was nothing.

The Rockets are going to overload Kawhi any time he touches the ball, and right now the Spurs have no ability to make them pay for this strategy. The defense sucked, and can be better in Game 1. But if the offense doesn’t get unstuck, it still probably won’t matter.

One glimmer of hope comes from last season. The Spurs destroyed the Thunder in Game 1, only to lose the series in six games.

But that series also shines a light on the reason we all feel so much dread after this Game 1: the Spurs have shown, time and again, that when they are outmatched in a series, they capitulate rather easily. They still play gamely, but they have no extra gear to go to, no deep reserve of resolve. When they’re not the better team, it becomes obvious quickly.

Monday night sure felt like that.

Here’s hoping Wednesday brings us a different result and better news. I’d like to be watching Spurs game past this weekend.

Go Spurs Go.

2017 Western Conference Semifinals Preview: The Familiar Strangers

Given the animosity between the fan bases (or is that just me?) and the continued success of both franchises over the years, it’s pretty miraculous the Rockets and the Spurs haven’t met in the playoffs since 1995. This is the only Western Conference team Duncan never faced (or beat) in the Playoffs. That’s crazy.

My first thought: we owe it to Duncan to get this spiritual victory for him.

My second thought: man, I want to beat this team. Badly. Nothing makes me happier than beating the Rockets. Throw D’Antoni into the mix, and that’s a powerful desire to win.

My third thought: this could be a very good series.

In the regular season, the Spurs took the series 3-1, but finished those four games with a mere +8 point margin. Every game was close and came down to the final possessions. We of course remember the Kawhi 3 and block that sealed one victory; we might also remember that crazy comeback from 14 down with about 6 minutes left earlier in the season.

My memory of each of the games was that the Rockets always seemed to have a lead late and seemed to be in control, but the Spurs were able to execute and perform better in the clutch. Under the postseason spotlight, this could become more magnified and could hopefully benefit the Spurs in tight games.

The first worry when playing the Rockets is always James Harden. How the Spurs choose to defend him will set the tone for the series. Can you guard him one-on-one with a combination of Green and Leonard? When he runs the pick and roll, can you defend that 2-on-2, so that the other three defenders stay home on the perimeter shooters, thus minimizing the 3-point damage this team wants to inflict? Can we avoid fouling him? Can we make him work on defense?

Beyond that, the next concern is the 3-point shot. It’s no secret Houston wants to jack them up early and often. It can be the great equalizer, allowing a less talented team to hang in a game when the shot is on. Will Houston have enough hot shooting games to take the series? When they are not shooting well (they shot poorly in their first round match-up against OKC), do they have enough to stay with the Spurs? Can the Spurs maintain their defensive integrity while still limiting and contesting the long ball?

After the tough first-round series with Memphis, it may seem like the Spurs offense is a bit stalled out. But moving from Memphis to Houston must feel like being released from basketball prison. Houston will score a lot; but they will let San Antonio score a lot, too. However, an offensive battle favors Houston; a defensive one favors the Spurs. Where on the continuum will these games (and the series) fall. The average score for the regular season series was 105-103. If the scores stay around there and lower, I think the Spurs should be heavily favored. If they drift into the 110-115 range, the Spurs might be in trouble.

Turning to the Spurs, there are still plenty of questions 6 games into the postseason. Will Kawhi continue his historic playoff run? By extension, can he out-MVP James Harden in a showdown of the potential MVP runner-ups? Whichever MVP candidate can contribute more to winning will likely lead his team to the series victory.

But Kawhi still needs help. Parker was great in the first round. Can we get 3-4 more great games from him? Will Beverley cause him defensive problems? He’s a great defensive guard, but so is Conley, so it might not be that much different for him.

After that, who else is ready to step up? Manu? Mills? Green? Anybody want to start hitting shots consistently? With Houston usually trending small, will San Antonio stay big and really force a style-vs-style fight? Or will they match and play some with Kawhi at the 4?

Which bigs will play? We know Aldridge will (and he needs to have a great series), but after that, who will get the call? Will Lee continue to start? How many minutes will Gasol play, and can he be effective? Both Dedmon and Bertans seem like good match-ups against Houston, but how much will Pop trust them?

Finally, which team is playing better right now. Presumably, Houston played a better first-round opponent and beat them more handily. They didn’t necessarily look good doing it, though, and required OKC to self-combust a bit to cover up their own myriad of mistakes in the end games.

San Antonio, on the other hand, was in a tougher series, but had to beat Memphis to win the games: the Grizzlies definitely weren’t giving anything away. While OKC was the better regular season team, I think Memphis was a better playoff team, and the Spurs had to play better, more playoff-style basketball in the first round. This might make them more prepared for this second-round match-up, when the intensity will crank up even more.

Of course, the question of health is always important. Both teams have had a nice rest before this series, so I expect both teams fully healthy. However, Harden did seem a bit banged up (ankle, hand) near the end of that first round series, so that will be something to monitor.

With any luck, this will be a great and competitive series…that the Spurs win.

Game 1 is Monday night in San Antonio.

Go Spurs Go.

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