Potential First Round Opponent: Houston Rockets
By Ian Smith
The San Antonio Spurs may be in the midst of a historical regular season, but the playoffs wipe the slate completely clean.
It doesn’t take a basketball aficionado to assume the Spurs will breeze past whoever their first round opponent is, but it’d be wise to pump the brakes a bit and take potential opponents like the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, and Portland Trailblazers seriously; if not for the slim chance of an upset, but the impact that the grind of a prolonged series could have on the Spurs during their quest for ring # 6.
Which of these opponents gives the Spurs the easiest path to the semi-finals? In the first of a series of matchup studies, this article examines the challenge the Houston Rockets would bring to a Spurs series.
The Rockets are actually the only team in this group to have beaten the Spurs this season. The Rockets won a tight game 88-84 on Christmas despite their faltering start to the season which saw head coach Kevin McHale jettisoned in a move that appears ineffective in hindsight. The empirical evidence is weak to suggest an upset, but still better than the rest of the teams facing a potential Spurs first round series.
The Rockets are just one year removed from a conference finals appearance, however, and with the core of that team largely in tact (albeit with some increased drama attached between James Harden and Dwight Howard), it seems unlikely that the Rockets would go down without a fight.
Patrick Beverley will be an asset that last year’s Rockets team was deprived of in the playoffs due to injury. His defensive intensity can’t be overlooked.
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This I-10 matchup would also essentially remove the effects of fatigue associated with a grueling travel schedule. Both these teams would look forward to this all-Texas matchup to enhance their already existing rivalry.
The Rockets are a fascinating team from an offensive standpoint. Daryl Morey’s analytics have tried to shape the most efficient team possible through shot selection, and the Rockets are 2nd in the NBA in points per possession. No team shoots a higher percentage of their shots from downtown than the Rockets. The effects of their 3 point percentage ranking only 21st in the association are remedied due to the value associated with a high volume of shots worth more.
Even if a team makes only 10 of 30 threes, its point total is equal to a team that shoots 50% from inside the arc. Morey is credited as the first mainstream basketball mind to reach this epiphany, and the Rockets choose to base their fortunes on it.
The Rockets’ woes on offense are more caused by reckless ball handling, as they rank 4th in most turnovers per game. This is a volatile offense that scores a lot of points through a game plan meant to capitalize on offensive opportunities, without a high field goal percentage to boast about.
While the Rockets have a top 5 offense in terms of points scored, their defense also gives up the 5th most points in the league. Houston’s defense lags to the degree of ranking well in the lower half of the league in opponents’ field goal percentage, which will certainly be exposed against the league’s best shooting team in the Spurs.
The defensive weakness combined with a mediocre home record of 20-16 is not promising for the Rockets in a series with the Spurs. The Rockets would be lucky to win a game this series, with multiple wins seeming to be almost impossible. They may catch fire for one home game and use the 3 pointer to their advantage, but the Spurs haven’t lost a game in San Antonio all season, and it’s not going to be to a poor defensive team like the Rockets.