• The Spurs might know what's coming, but they can't stop the Rockets. James Harden and his pick-and-roll partners shredded San Antonio in Game 1. Can the Spurs adjust?
By Zach Pereles
May 03, 2017

Stockton and Malone. Parker and Duncan. Nash and Stoudemire. Harden and… Capela and Anderson?

James Harden and his two primary big men looked like they belonged in that elite pick-and-roll company Monday night when they combined for 54 points and routed the Spurs with ease. The Rockets posted an offensive rating of 123.0, their best of the playoffs thus far, and it became inherently obvious that the Spurs will have to make significant adjustments given their overmatched personnel.

Here’s what the Rockets bring to the table: arguably the NBA's best playmaker both as a scorer and passer, a big man who sets screens like a bulldozer and runs like a gazelle, and a 6’10” knockdown shooter from deep.

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The Spurs, meanwhile, counter with skilled but athletically limited 30-somethings LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and David Lee. The Spurs also have Dewayne Dedmon, who is the most athletic of the bunch, but he’s not much of an offensive threat. He could certainly be in the plans moving forward, though, after a disastrous Game 1. The Rockets didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to torch the Spurs. Harden registered the third-most pick-and-roll possessions during regular season, trailing only Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker. And he’s second so far in this postseason behind only Chris Paul. The Spurs are simply ill-prepared, not necessarily from a gameplan standpoint but from a personnel standpoint, to stop Houston’s offensive machine. 

The bloodbath from Harden and his pick-and-roll buddies started early. The Spurs, as expected, stuck Kawhi Leonard on Harden and decided to not switch screens. But that requires an effective hedge from the big man, which Aldridge doesn’t provide. This gives Harden a straight line to the basket on his dominant left side, something not even Leonard, maybe the best defender in the world, has a chance of defending.

Just a handful of possessions later, Aldridge adjusts and tries to hedge harder. Bad news: Harden will beat you with passing. Even worse news: He’s passing to Ryan Anderson, who shot over 40% from deep this season. Harden’s ability to pass from a variety of angles, combined with Aldridge’s poor lateral quickness, leads to a three from the Houston big man. Anderson has hit eight threes off pick-and-pops so far in these playoffs, and his 1.2 points per possession in screening situations is fifth-best in the playoffs. The pick-and pop is nearly unguardable if you have the right personnel, and the Rockets certainly do.

And when you decide not to switch on the screens, as Manu Ginobili and Aldridge do here, you’re asking for Harden to take over. Even with strong help defense from Lee, Harden finds Capela for the bucket plus the foul with a nifty wraparound pass.

Don’t want to bring post help on the drive? Harden is a strong finisher at the rim. Want to have your big man back off to prevent the drive? Harden will shoot it over you. Essentially, Aldridge has no chance when he gets switched onto Harden post-pick. The same goes for Lee and Gasol. Harden leads the playoffs in scoring as the pick-and-roll ball-handler with 101 points in just six games, averaging nearly 17 points per game off one of the most basic sets in all of basketball.

On most of the clips until this point, Anderson has been the primary screen setter. Anderson’s role is simple: Set the screen and get out of the way in an attempt to space the floor. Capela, meanwhile, has a very different role: set the screen and roll to the basket. This, in turn, means the two set screens very differently. Anderson wants to make just enough contact to give Harden a split-second of freedom before he scurries behind the line. Capela, meanwhile, sets more forceful screens, wanting to create more contact and then seal his man off before diving toward the basket. On this play, Capela creates separation from Danny Green and Harden delivers a highlight-reel pass right on the money.

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But perhaps no set of clips showed how ill-equipped the Spurs are to defend the small-ball Rockets better than these back-to-back buckets late in the third quarter. Yes, the game was all but over, but the Spurs still had their regulars on the floor, as did the Rockets.

In the first play, Capela whiffs on the screen, so Green and Lee are well-positioned to stop the pick-and-roll. The problem, though, is that Capela had just burned them on the pick-and-roll a few minutes earlier, so LaMarcus Aldridge sneaks down into the paint. That leaves Trevor Ariza wide open, and after Harden slings a pinpoint pass, Aldridge is far too slow to recover. The next time down the floor, Harden comes off Capela’s screen and Aldridge is in no man’s land. If he steps toward Harden, Ariza is open again. If he jumps toward Ariza, Harden is on his way to the basket. Aldridge does nothing to limit either option, and Lee completely loses Capela. Tony Parker could have rotated down here, but that would have left Patrick Beverley wide open for a three. Or Parker could have wound up on a Capela poster.

It’s a lose-lose situation, something San Antonio became very familiar with in Game 1.