Monday night, the Rockets and Spurs will meet in the playoffs for the first time in 22 years when game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals tips off. The two in-state rivals met four times in the regular season with the Spurs winning three of those contests by a combined 10 points. The Rockets go into the series as underdogs without homeourt advantage against a team that finished 61-21, so it will take a lot to beat them, but here are some keys for how they can get it done.
Stay focused for 48 minutes
When the Rockets lost to the Spurs 102-100 at Toyota Center on December 20, they led by 13 in the fourth quarter. They again lost by two March 6 in San Antonio despite leading by 16 after 12 minutes and 14 in the second half. Even the game the Rockets won came down to the final possession even though they led by double-digits late in the third quarter. If the Rockets learned anything from four games against the Spurs it’s that they aren’t going to go away. Because they defend, because they shoot the three, the Spurs are built to make comebacks. Too often, the Rockets will get sloppy and giveaway possessions at both ends of the floor. You can’t do that this time of year. On Thursday night in Memphis, the Grizzlies led the Spurs by 10 in the fourth quarter and it looked like they’d extend that series to seven games. They let up, and now they’re at home.
You figure the Rockets will shoot better than the 28 percent from behind the 3-point line they shot against Oklahoma City, 25 percent on wide open threes, but don’t expect the Rockets to just erupt from out there. San Antonio was tied with the Rockets and Heat for the third best 3-point shooting defense in the NBA at 34.4 percent, and they limited the Rockets to 29 percent in the four regular season meetings. In the last series, the Thunder did everything they could to stick with the Rockets shooters, but still gave up more than 10 wide-open looks per game. The Rockets skated by despite missing most of those shots, but that can’t happen now. James Harden shot 24 percent from long distance, Trevor Ariza, 19 percent, and Ryan Anderson 12.5 percent. Rockets can’t win if those numbers don’t go up a lot.
Control the pace
The Rockets played at the NBA’s third fastest pace in the regular season, while the Spurs played at the league’s fourth slowest pace. It’s harder to speed a team up than it is to slow a team down, but the Rockets were able to get the Spurs to meet them in the middle during the regular season. The Rockets need this series to be played at as close to their pace as possible because Spurs had the NBA’s best defense during the regular season so the last thing the Rockets want is for this series to be a grind-out halfcourt game. The Rockets have a better chance of getting the shots they want if they can play at their style.
Attack the bigs
In game one against Oklahoma City, the Rockets attacked Enes Kanter at will, so much so, that he was pretty much rendered useless for the remainder of the series. They don’t have Kanter to pick on anymore, but the Spurs have their own big men Harden and company can go after. San Antonio will play LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, David Lee, and Dewayne Dedmon at the power forward and center spots and only Dedmon would be considered a plus defender. He only played 8 minutes per game in the first round against Memphis. If that continues, expect Harden, Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, and Patrick Beverley to attack the rim whenever they get the chance, especially Harden and Williams on pick and rolls, and we might see the return of the Harden/Clint Capela lob.
Don’t rely on free throws
The Rockets survived brutal 3-point shooting in the last round by living at the free throw line. They attempted 26.5 free throws per game in the regular season, but against the Thunder, that number went up to 33.5, however, against the Spurs in the regular season, that number fell to fewer than 22 with Harden taking two fewer a game than he did against the rest of the league. San Antionio was top 10 in avoiding fouls and keeping teams off the free throw line this season. They play a bunch of guys who are experienced, smart, and crafty. They’ve seen Harden and the Rockets plenty over the years, so they know all his tricks, as will the officials who are only better and more experienced as the playoffs move forward. The Rockets can’t expect to get a lot of help from the guys with the whistles this series.