In Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals between Houston and San Antonio, it was the Rockets throwing the first punch – winning on the road by a score of 126-99.
While empirical evidence suggests a sheer domination by Houston, quantitative data furthers the point that San Antonio may be in serious trouble going forward.
Monday night’s game is likely an aberration. The two teams faced each other four times in the regular season – with San Antonio winning three of those match-ups. The average margin of victory for the Spurs in these games was a mere 3.3 points. Houston’s one regular season victory was by two points.
The two squads played each other very evenly. With that said, it was also the worst home playoff loss for the Spurs in franchise history. The team collectively demonstrated a lack of energy. Houston was the scrappy team – offering much more in the way of urgency.
Why was this? For one, San Antonio was completely inept at defending the three-point line. Houston made a franchise-record 22 three-point attempts on 50 tries. During the four-game regular season series, the Rockets shot 29-percent.
James Harden was masterful in getting his teammates great looks at the basket. He finished with 20 points on 6-of-13 from the field. These aren’t eye-popping numbers from a scoring standpoint. With that said, he accrued four steals on the defensive end of the floor, and finished with 14 assists. Harden was superb in pick-and-roll situations – particularly with Ryan Anderson as the screener.
The Rockets routinely put the Spurs (and David Lee) in these scenarios. Should San Antonio switch the screen, Harden has a decided advantage against the plodding big man. If Harden’s defensive assignment (usually Danny Green) went under the screen, Anderson would have plenty of open looks from the perimeter. Anderson knocked down four threes en route to a 14-point evening. The Rockets were also +37 with Anderson on the floor.
On possessions where Harden blew past Lee (or the switching big man), he’d attack the lane – which resulted in a good look at the basket, or a pass out to a wide-open Trevor Ariza on the wing. Ariza himself made five threes on 10 attempts (finishing the game with 23 points).
In the first round, Houston faced a very athletic Oklahoma City squad – featuring multiple defenders possessing the ability to switch on screens without much of an issue. Against a decidedly less-athletic Spurs front line, Houston is afforded more open looks from the perimeter. Ariza and Anderson should capitalize on this facet – as they demonstrated in Game 1.
Effort and energy aside, the defensive effort from the Spurs was abysmal. Rarely were Houston cutters hindered from getting to their spots. There was a general softness from one of the NBA’s best defenses, and it resulted in Houston shooting 46.0-percent from the floor, and 44.0-percent from three.
As a means to combat the potential problems defensively, San Antonio could opt to go small by giving some of Lee’s minutes to Jonathan Simmons and/or Kyle Anderson. Simmons is easily the best athlete on the Spurs’ roster, and has the capabilities to create his own shot off the dribble.
While not near the athlete Simmons is, Anderson is exceptionally gifted from a passing and I.Q. standpoint. Theoretically speaking, each would likely do a more sufficient job of defending versus Anderson out away from the basket. Tony Parker’s inability to get around Patrick Beverley was a major problem. The feisty Houston defender pressured Parker both with quickness and physicality – holding him to 3-of-9 shooting from the field for a meager 11 points.
And then there’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Coming over from Portland last year, he was supposed to be a major cog in the Spurs’ quest for another Championship. He completely disappeared in Game 1 – scoring four points on 2-of-7 from the field. The Spurs were -36 when Aldridge was on the court. He struggled with the length of Clint Capela in the post, and rarely attempted to post up the smaller Anderson on the block.
Aldridge has struggled versus Houston this season – averaging 13.2 PPG and 7.0 RPG. He’s also shooting 36.7-percent from the field in the five-game sample size. In the playoffs, the 31-year-old has averaged 12.4 PPG and 8.0 RPG. He’s got to provide San Antonio with a legitimate second option if the Spurs are to win this series. Houston’s equipped with far too much firepower – especially when considering the Rockets can bring in two players off the bench (Lou Williams, Eric Gordon) capable of scoring 20+ points on any given night.
While any quantitative evidence can’t measure this prediction, the Spurs will not come out in Game 2 with the same lack of urgency. The collective experience of head coach Gregg Popovich, Parker, and Manu Ginobili will help – as will the play of Kawhi Leonard.
Popovich is the best coach in the league. While the Spurs do have some personnel deficiencies when compared to their competitors, Popovich has a long track record of making the requisite adjustments needed in making his teams successful.
As such, it would be utterly foolish for anyone to write the Spurs off after one game.
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