After dueling with the Memphis Grizzlies for six games, the San Antonio Spurs will face their divisional rival, Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals.
As the Spurs have emerged victorious from a grueling series against the Grizzlies, a new challenge appears from the Southwest Division. The Rockets have undergone an awakening to their true potential this year and have become one of the league’s elite offenses in the process.
Head Coach Mike D’Antoni has brought his run and gun offense to Houston and has forced star James Harden to elevate his game.
With that being said, Coach Gregg Popovich is no stranger to D’Antoni’s offense. The Spurs have faced D’Antoni’s offense multiple times throughout his coaching career and are well prepared to take on the challenge.
Here are five keys to success for the Spurs in this Western Conference Semifinals showdown.
A Change of Pace
After a grueling series with Memphis, the Spurs will be forced to shift gears and face an up-tempo Rockets team. During the regular season, Houston ranked top three in offensive efficiency, pace and effective field goal percentage.
Houston is clearly a fast and efficient team, but are generally predictable. Their primary goal is to run in transition and shoot three pointers. When that doesn’t work, they’ll hand the ball off to Harden who will look to create a play, find an open shot or draw a foul.
Knowing this, San Antonio will have a clear understanding of what to do defensively. The Spurs will need to adjust quickly and defend carefully without allowing open shots from deep.
If the Spurs can force the Rockets out of their pace or adjust to the high energy style that Houston runs, San Antonio can dominate the series.
Kawhi Needs to Win His Matchup with Harden
The duel between two MVP candidates will surely surface as a storied headline throughout this series. Kawhi Leonard, the emerging star for the Spurs, has proven countless times that he is more than just a product of Popovich’s coaching. Now is his chance to prove that to the world.
Kawhi Leonard has scored 158 points through the first 5 games of the playoffs, 2nd-most in Spurs history behind George Gervin in 1978. pic.twitter.com/FjDJmLXAHu
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 26, 2017
Harden, 27, has been a star in this league for the past five years and has shown no signs of slowing down. His elite passing and scoring have made him a popular candidate for the MVP award this season.
As part of his duties as the team’s strongest defender, Leonard will likely find himself matched up with Harden throughout the series.
As long as he can avoid foul trouble and force Harden into difficult situations, Kawhi can dominate his matchup with ‘The Beard.’
LaMarcus Needs to Step Up
In the 2016 Western Conference Semifinals, LaMarcus Aldridge scorched the Thunder for 26.8 points per game on 53 percent shooting. He also averaged eight and a half rebounds and one block for the series.
That’s the side of LaMarcus Aldridge that Coach Popovich needs to appear. In the first round, Aldridge averaged just 15 points on 45 percent shooting from the floor.
While Memphis is a strong defensive matchup, especially down low, Aldridge’s performance was surprisingly poor throughout the series.
Now, with a much easier matchup in Ryan Anderson, Aldridge has the perfect opportunity to repeat his stellar performance from last year. If Aldridge can find his shooting stroke and become the sidekick that Kawhi needs, the Spurs can be deadly.
Protecting the Arc
There are few certainties in life, but the Houston Rockets’ constant three point shooting is one of them. In the regular season, they led the league in percentage of three point field goals attempted with 46.2 percent of their shots coming from deep.
And why wouldn’t they shoot? With a roster headlined by players like Lou Williams and Eric Gordon, three pointers are clearly integral to their offense.
— Nick Sharara (@TheProducerNick) April 20, 2017
Regardless, the Spurs’ perimeter players will need to do their best in chasing Houston’s shooters from the three point line.
Protecting the perimeter is going to be a huge factor in this series, whether it be in transition or in a half court setting. Limiting Houston’s three point opportunities will force D’Antoni into some uncomfortable situations offensively. Doing so will be a major key in defeating the Rockets.
One Last Rally for the Vets
As difficult as it may be, the Spurs will need to avoid father time once more if they hope to defeat the Rockets.
Houston’s up-tempo play style will force the Spurs to run in transition more than they’ll be comfortable with, which is especially concerning when acknowledging Manu Ginobili’s performance in the first round.
Through 93 minutes over six games, Ginobili scored just 14 points on 23 shots. This performance was extremely uncharacteristic of Manu, who has spent the past 15 seasons tearing up opposing teams.
In his defense, Manu’s contributions to the game come in other forms such as passing and leadership, but his much needed scoring fell flat.
Tony Parker, on the other hand, broke out for 16 points per game on 53 percent shooting. This performance eclipsed his disappointing regular season and proved that he can still come through when he’s needed most.
Tony Parker (27 points 11/14 78.6%) records his highest FG% ever in a playoff game with 25+ pts. pic.twitter.com/yf27HkXHOy
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) April 28, 2017
To keep up with the Rockets, San Antonio will need to prepare for the speed and aggressiveness of their opponent. If the Spurs’ veterans can keep up with Houston without sacrificing their efficiency, San Antonio will have a great shot at emerging victorious.
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