San Antonio Spurs: Game planning for Russell Westbrook and James Harden in Houston

SAN ANTONIO,TX - APRIL 1 : Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs reaches of the ball after being fouled by James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets at AT&T Center (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO,TX - APRIL 1 : Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs reaches of the ball after being fouled by James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets at AT&T Center (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images) /

A blockbuster trade brought Russell Westbrook into the San Antonio Spurs’ division, now Gregg Popovich needs to prepare for a deadly duo in Houston.

On four separate occasions this coming season, the San Antonio Spurs need to brace themselves for the onslaught caused by the Houston Rockets’ newly re-formed duo of two former-MVP winners and triple-double machines. These rival franchises will face off four times this year – twice in December and twice in April – and franchise architect and coaching mastermind Gregg Popovich must put on his thinking cap to strategize against Houston’s superstars.

First and foremost, the Spurs need to force the rest of the Rockets to shoot instead of letting James Harden do his thing. Defending the scoring champ is a nearly impossible task for any player but returning Dejounte Murray to join Derrick White on the perimeter gives San Antonio a fighting chance.

Harden is deceptively quick and can fire away from nearly any spot beyond the half court line. He’s a proven play maker and will oftentimes use the threat of his shooting ability to set teammates up for scoring opportunities of their own. Even while taking a career-high 24.5 shots per contest, the 30-year-old two-guard still managed to average 7.5 dimes last season.

The threat of his capabilities can be scarier than the reality of his scoring. Harden’s worst field goal shooting game of last year came while matched up against the youthful and dynamic White. San Antonio played a physical game and kept in Harden’s airspace, effectively forcing him into poor shots and 1-of-13 shooting from three-point land.

Daring Harden to shoot sounds like an awful strategy, but keeping up on him around the perimeter and contesting his jumpers can lead to winning results. Harden made 7-of-27 shots in that game for 25.9 percent shooting from the field. While White did an excellent job of keeping with Harden at the perimeter, bigs like LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl were crucial in altering his shots at the rim. Simply put, containing Harden takes a team-effort and defensive synchronicity is the only way for San Antonio to stop him.

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As for his cohort, Russell Westbrook, explosiveness is the most important aspect to keeping up with the 6-foot-3 athletic specimen. According to Land of Basketball, Westbrook shoots an average of 43.4 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from three-point land when head-to-head with Murray.

Utilizing his length, size and shiftiness, Murray can keep with Westbrook and close out on shots from any part of the court floor. Russ has shown a sharp decline in shooting ability over the last few seasons with his troubles coming to a head during his last season in Oklahoma City. Clogging lanes and keeping active, switching defenders in place will force Westbrook to pass out of the drive, as he’s known to do, and rely on his teammates to produce.

If Murray and White can keep the ball away from this dynamic duo, the Spurs could methodically pick the Rockets apart. It’s no secret that Pop historically has had Houston coach Mike D’Antoni’s number throughout the years.

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With tricks up his sleeve and an anticipated boost in San Antonio’s defensive intensity, Pop could effectively thwart the Rockets’ hopes of claiming the top of the Southwest Division.