The Houston Rockets pulled off the most impressive road victory of the playoffs over the weekend, thumping the Spurs at the AT&T Center by 27 points. It’s hard to say if the Spurs were worse on offense or defense, as Houston ended up shooting over 7% higher from 3 than San Antonio did with all of their attempts. James Harden put on a polished performance as he manipulated LaMarcus Aldridge switches on the exterior, and David Lee guarding the paint down low. The Rockets dared Tony Parker to shoot by going under screens, and he finished 3/9 from the field. Kawhi Leonard even fell from his graces, finishing with his lowest FG% of the playoffs at 36%.
Then, not so surprisingly, Popovich tweaked the game plan and flipped the scoreboard to even the series before the teams packed up and headed eastward. Looking past the reasonable speculation that KawhiBot’s glitches had been fixed with a software update..
This Kawhi software update is unreal
— Tribune of the Plebs (@Handsome_Jake_) May 4, 2017
Here are the major adjustments Pop made to swing Game 2 in his favor:
Starting Pau Gasol Over David Lee
David Lee was terrible in Game 1. Popovich’s scolding of Lee started when he took a timeout, not even two minutes in, to lambaste Lee for switching onto Harden and giving up a corner 3, then only continued every time Lee made his way back to the Spurs bench. By the end of David Lee’s 29 minutes he had 5 Defensive Rebounds to Clint Capela’s 3 Offensive, a 128 Defensive Rating, and finished a -7. Starting Pau Gasol in Game 2 challenged Gasol to be a much better rim defender in the last line against Harden streaking to the basket with Capela flanking him. Pau responded in major fashion by grabbing 7 Defensive Rebounds, holding Capela to only 1 Offensive Rebound. Capela scored 6 fewer points, and most significantly, Gasol managed to block 4 shots. This resulted in a 98 Defensive Rating for Pau, and he finished a +11.
Putting Danny Green On Ryan Anderson
Popovich exchanged Danny Green and LaMarcus Aldridge’s defensive assignments so Green could guard Anderson. These matchups changed the dynamics of how Houston used ball screens: now if they wanted to exploit Aldridge, Ariza had to be the player setting the screen for Harden, instead of Anderson. Ariza is a good, but streaky 3 point shooter (34% this year), and shooting out of the pick-and-pop is not his forte, unlike Anderson. Leonard guarded Harden to start the game, and anytime the Rockets ran a 2-4 ball screen, it simply allowed the Spurs best perimeter defenders to switch responsibilities while killing Houston’s shot clock and tempo. Anderson still had a big night, hitting 4 of his 5 3’s, but the major difference was Ariza going 0/4 from deep, instead of 5/10, like in Game 1. Ariza and Anderson tallied 27 points on 20 3PA’s in Game 1, then dropped to 12 points on 9 3PA’s in Game 2.
Challenging James Harden With Drives
Danny Green’s deep-range shooting struggles in the postseason (29.7%) continued in Game 1 when he bricked 7 of his 9 attempts; those 9 attempts made up all but 1 of his total FGA’s. Harden was prepared to sag off and closeout on Green in Game 2, but wasn’t ready for Green to blow by him off the dribble.
Green only shot 4 times beyond the arc (both his makes were from the corners), and he tripled his Game 1 assist tally by taking what the disadvantaged Rocket defense gave him. Green’s drives largely opened up the floor for the Spurs to move the ball and keep the Houston defense swirling through ineffective rotations.
Getting LaMarcus Aldridge Shots
While he still had a somewhat inefficient game with an eFG% under 50, getting Aldridge involved on offense better acclimated a player coming off a miserable Game 1. Aldridge has been characterized as a volume scorer, who needs a serious amount of shots to be his best. While there isn’t much of a correlation present in his career stats to substantiate that claim, there is this: in this year’s playoffs, when Aldridge has a Usage Rate higher than 20%, his average eFG% is 47.8 with a Offensive Rating of 116. When his Usage Rate drops below 20%, his average eFG% drops to 39.8% with a Offensive Rating of 94.8. More than anything, involving Aldridge on OFFENSE engages a guy that is on the team for his OFFENSE, which could raise the overall ceiling for the team. The Spurs did this by putting him in 2-man game situations with Kawhi, and asking him to roll to the basket more often so he could draw fouls or fight for offensive rebounds. Between the 2 games, he shot twice as many times in Game 2, and attempted 5 extra Free Throws, for 11 additional points.
Crashing The Offensive Glass
Tony Parker’s dribble penetrations were instrumental in breaking down the Houston defense. Parker was often the outlet when Green or Leonard dribbled into traffic, and Parker converted those catches into paint-bound drives. Even if it meant crashing from the 3 point line, Aldridge, Lee, and Gasol ran full speed at the basket to pressure the Rockets bigs. Not only did this strategy win the rebound battle, manufacture Second Chance Points, and give Aldridge most of his baskets, it counteracted Houston’s desire to push the ball. The 19 2nd Chance Points coming on 15 Offensive rebounds in Game 2 increased from 12 2nd Chance Points on 11 Offensive Rebounds in Game 1.
Plenty of things feel unsustainable about the way in which San Antonio won Game 2. They shot 54.5% from the field, 48% on non-paint 2’s, 5% better from 3 than Houston, nearly 90% from the Charity Stripe, won the rebound margin by 14, and had an AST/TO ratio higher than 3. The biggest factor, however, is that they will no longer have Tony Parker to boost the tempo and provide slashing alternatives to the offense. Parker has been highly inconsistent the last 2 years, but was in full vintage mode in Game 2. In the 26 minutes before rupturing his left quadriceps tendon, Parker was 8/13, 2/2 from 3, for 18 points and 4 assists to 0 turnovers. The split quadriceps tendon is an uncommon injury that requires surgery, and will sideline Parker into the summer.
If the Spurs are to win Game 3, it will most likely have to come from the role players, and James Harden will need to have another poor game. The reason for this is because it’s hard to imagine Kawhi Leonard playing another level better than he did in Game 2. With intermittent Harden responsibilities, Kawhi posted 34 points on 13/16 shooting, 7 rebounds, 8 assists to 2 turnovers, 3 steals and 0 fouls. All those numbers boiled down into a Game Score of 37.8. 40 is considered to be outstanding, and even LeBron’s Game 2 vs. Toronto (36), and John Wall’s Game 6 vs. Atlanta (34.4) fall short of what Kawhi did in Game 2 (Isaiah Thomas’ Game 2 vs. Washington was an extraordinary 41.3). As previously mentioned, LaMarcus Aldridge plays a crucial role on offense and can play a lot better, but predicting who else could step up for San Antonio quickly turns into a crap shoot. Houston’s perimeter defense didn’t have the same edge in Game 2. I expect Harden to bounce back, and the Rockets shooters to perform better in front of their home crowd. In a closer game than the previous two, the Rockets winning by 7-12 points is my prediction.