The Spurs didn’t have much trouble with many of their opponents last season, finishing the regular season an NBA best 62-20 and tearing through the playoffs handily en route to the NBA title. But despite this success, there were a handful of teams that the Spurs struggled against, the Houston Rockets chief among them. The Rockets had the Spurs’ number last season, sweeping them 4-0 in the regular season and forcing many to question whether the Spurs would be able to beat them in a potential second-round match up. The Rockets’ high-powered offense, fueled by the duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard, gave the Spurs all sorts of problems, and their retooled squad look to be a serious threat again this season. However, a closer look at last season’s match ups reveals that the Spurs could be close to reversing their fortunes against their I-10 rivals.
1) The Spurs Were Rarely at Full Strength
The Spurs played two games of the series, January 28 and April 14, without the trio of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter. While the Spurs are known for their depth and rotation play and are better equipped to handle a player’s absence then most teams, playing without three regular starters undoubtedly hurts. Leonard, Green and Splitter are three of the Spur’s better defenders, and their presence would have helped immensely against the Rockets’ offensive attack.
Of course, Leonard, Green, and Splitter did play in the first two games against the Rockets, both of which the Spurs lost. So how would they make a difference, exactly? First of all, Leonard improved greatly as the season went on; he was a different player at the end of the season than he was in November, as evidenced by hos playoff performance. Second, with Marco Bellinelli and Boris Diaw starting, the trio never really saw the court together. This means that the Rockets’ never had to face the Spurs’ top lineup of Tony Parker-Green-Leonard-Tim Duncan-Splitter, which was one of the league’s best five man groups last season, particularly on defense.
2) Chandler Parsons is Gone While Harden and Howard get most of the credit, Parsons was equally as vital to the Rockets’ success against the Spurs. The forward averaged 18.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in the fours match ups last season, scoring at least 21 points in three games and generally shooting well from three. His versatility and shooting added another dimension to the Rockets’ offense and he thrived against the Spurs’ weaker defensive lineups.
This year, Parsons will be replaced by Trevor Ariza. Ariza is a solid player who can shoot and defend, but he won’t be the offensive threat that Parsons was. He doesn’t have Parson’s playmaking ability, he doesn’t create his own shots as well and he won’t attack the basket nearly as much. Watching Ariza on the Wizards last year, much of his offense came from open looks created by John Wall. If the Spurs can prevent Ariza from getting those open looks, he’s much easier to contain.
3) The Games Were Close
Outside of a 13 point Rockets win on Christmas Day, the other three games were close affairs, decided by margins of 6, 7 and 6. Not exactly nail-biters, but they certainly could have gone either way. A couple of lucky bounces or a few breaks and the Spurs could have won all three of those games. The Christmas game was an example of the Spurs just being outplayed. It happens. But that game was a bit of an outlier. James Harden nearly 70% from the field and Parson shot over 50% from three, while the Spurs got uncharacteristically poor performances from Duncan and Parker. The other three games are much better indicators of how the teams matchup, and even those games don’t really tell the whole story, because …
4) It was the Regular Season
The Spurs have reached a point where individual regular season games don’t take on a ton of significance. Coach Popovich has no problem resting Duncan, Parker, and Manu Ginobili for stretches, and he’ll mix and match different lineups and experiment with the rotation. The Spurs are in a similar position to the Heat teams of the last few seasons, where their willing to sacrifice a few wins, or even seeding, to make sure everyone is healthy and rested for the playoffs. The Spurs demonstrated in the Finals that they don’t need home court advantage to win.
The last game of the series against the Rockets, on April 14, came at the very end of the season, where the Spurs had already wrapped up the no. 1 seed and mostly played their reserves. The Spurs record prior to their other match ups were 14-3, 22-7 and 33-12. It wasn’t like they were desperate for a win, or fighting to remain on the playoff standings. The fact is the Spurs rarely need a regular season win. Certain games may mean a bit more emotionally, but they aren’t must-win.
None of this means the Rockets should be written off. They remain a talented and dangerous playoff team, and they are a tough matchup for the Spurs. But the rivalry isn’t nearly as one-sided or hopeless as it looks on the surface. The Spurs can hang with anybody, Rockets included, and if the two end up meeting in what would be a must-see playoff series, they should be able to prove that they still own the I-10 rivalry.