• The Spurs and Rockets have traded blowouts in two games, but the teams are much closer than those would suggest. Here are the strategic moves to keep an eye on moving forward.
By Rohan Nadkarni
May 04, 2017

Finding success in a playoff series often comes down to sussing out what can actually carry over from game to game. Entering Wednesday night, the Rockets knew that they could punish the Spurs’ bigs in pick and rolls, but they also knew they weren’t going to shoot 44% on 50 three-point attempts for a second straight game. San Antonio knew after its Game 1 loss that David Lee couldn’t survive defensively in heavy minutes, and also knew it had to adjust its strategy defending James Harden at the top of the key. As the Spurs and Rockets flip-flopped from their Game 1 performances in what turned into a San Antonio blowout in Game 2, a couple strategic adjustments could play a significant role as the series continues.

First, the pick-and-roll. The Spurs started Game 1 with Kawhi Leonard on Harden as opposed to Danny Green, and immediately Harden felt the pinch of being guarded by the game’s best perimeter defender. Leonard’s length and athleticism allows him to disrupt and fight through screens better than Green, and his commitment to sticking with Harden meant fewer switches onto San Antonio bigs. When Leonard wasn’t on Harden, Gregg Popovich also had him guard bigs more often in Game 2, which discouraged some of Houston’s favorite pick-and-roll actions.

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It’s hard to imagine Harden playing as poorly as he did in Game 2 the rest of the series, but the Spurs’ defense deserves some credit for keeping Harden in check. Houston’s MVP candidate finished with 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting, settling for too many pull-up threes. Harden only made it to the foul line six times on Wednesday, as San Antonio also did a better job of keeping him out of the paint.

Harden will respond to the defensive adjustments—and likely shoot much better in Game 3—but Popovich unveiled a couple more wrinkles on Wednesday. First, Jonathon Simmons played 20 non-garbage time minutes, and his activity was a huge boost for the Spurs bench. Simmons led all San Antonio reserves in scoring with 14 points, and his energetic defense was a necessity. The most important development, however, was Pop going small in the second half.

The Spurs pulled away from the Rockets early in the fourth quarter, and their decisive run coincided with Popovich playing only one of his big men at a time. San Antonio opted for more traditional lineups during the regular season, often pairing LaMarcus Aldridge with a center, or playing Lee and Pau Gasol together off the bench. In the fourth, Pop kept Gasol and Aldridge separated, and the resulting space not only opened up the Spurs’ offense, it also helped them play tighter defense. If Popovich commits more minutes to his smaller lineup moving forward, Houston’s advantages on offense lessen.

Of course, there are some drawbacks to the Spurs’ adjustments from Game 2. Starting Gasol proved wise, as his defense at the rim is better than Lee’s. But Gasol is still slow footed, and he can still very much be a liability while playing next to Aldridge. And while the small lineup looked to be a better matchup on Wednesday, the Spurs also run the risk of getting sucked completely into Houston’s preferred pace.

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(It should be noted at this point that Pop will have to make more serious changes depending on the severity of Tony Parker’s left knee injury. Parker’s injury looked serious, and he’s had some big moments in these playoffs. Patty Mills is a capable replacement, but is Dejounte Murray ready to step up?)

The Spurs and Rockets are obviously much closer than the competing blowouts from the first two games of this series. As both teams regress toward their mean, the tweaks each coach makes will have a much larger impact on the series. Popovich won the strategic battle Wednesday night, but the viability of his adjustments should face a much stiffer test as the series continues.