The San Antonio Spurs get an early look at the Houston Rockets’ revamped lineup as they face off in the penultimate game of preseason.
Redemption is in order for Spurs point guard Dejounte Murray in the second to last matchup of the preseason. After spending the last year recovering from injury and retooling his skill set, the 23-year-old will get to face off against an elite backcourt pairing in Russell Westbrook and James Harden after tearing his ACL against a very different Rockets grouping in 2018.
Murray has started off modestly since returning to Gregg Popovich’s lineup, failing to rack up significant stats while shooting a poor percentage from the field. What’s been more alarming Is his lack of assertiveness on the defensive end with only one steal per contest through three games.
However, preseason overreactions are silly – most games this early in the year are for warming up and letting young players earn their reps. Murray’s growth cannot be truly assessed in the preseason, but his ability to keep up with two of sports’ most proficient lead guards should be of note against the Rockets.
A similar test is proposed to Derrick White and Bryn Forbes, who’ve trended in the complete opposite directions as a result of the three games played thus far. White, who was argued to be a starting caliber combo guard at many points through the offseason, has been abysmal offensively.
Inversely, Forbes has shown immense growth through these three games. He’s leading the Spurs in scoring while shooting lights out from everywhere on the court – 54.5% from the field, 64.3% from three-point land and a clean 100% from the charity stripe.
It’s clear that the battle tested Forbes is growing into his own as a shooter and leader, especially ahead of an important contract year.
The Rockets are a heavy favorite to win this preseason meeting as well as the season series, on paper. With that said, the Spurs are deep, resilient and have expert coaching to combat Westbrook and Harden’s reunion.
Next: Testing the Spurs’ depth against Houston
Testing the Spurs’ depth against Houston
If anything has been established in this early season preparation by San Antonio, it’s that depth will be key to success this year. There’s a fiery blend of veteran contributors alongside an exciting group of eager, young talent to boast on the Spurs’ roster.
General manager Brian Wright and his predecessor R.C. Buford fleshed out a team that can tackle a wide range of lineups. Affording Popovich this level of flexibility will prove useful down the stretch of the season, but he’ll need to experiment with lineups first.
Going against a Rockets team that they’ll face off against four times this season should help the Spurs to prepare themselves for some of the newcomers and the surrounding cast in Houston.
Swingman Gerald Green is in danger of missing the season after suffering a foot injury, leaving the small forward position relatively vacant for Mike D’Antoni’s team. One of Danuel House or Eric Gordon, who’s undersized for the position at 6-foot-4, will start at small forward for this unit, putting additional pressure on a frontcourt rotation of P.J. Tucker, Ryan Anderson, Tyson Chandler and Clint Capela.
Houston could be forced to put some unpolished players in the lineup, opening up and opportunity for the Spurs to strike. The threat of the Rockets’ starting five is daunting, but the Spurs have enough talent on the end of their bench to close the gap and snatch a victory from the interstate rival.
This means DeMarre Carroll and Rudy Gay should be able to produce because of their physicality and length advantage against some of their matchups. Tuckers will have his hands full with these two floor spacers because of their quick wits, ball fakes and slashing capabilities.
Next: Keeping control of the fastbreak
Keeping control of the fastbreak
Last season’s Spurs averaged the third fewest fastbreak points in the league, keeping a simple and composed play style without pushing the tempo often at all. Houston was near the middle of the league at 19th in the same category but added one of the fastest and most intimidating players in the game with Westbrook.
Furthermore, the Spurs allowed. Handful of fastbreak points to New Orleans in their previous matched. The quick hands, active lobs and athletic transitions of Zion Williamson and the Pelicans were too much for the shorthanded Spurs to overcome in the fourth quarter.
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This is an area for the group to focus on in this meeting with the Rockets – especially because of the three-point threat that they post. It’s no secret that Harden can pull up from virtually anywhere beyond the three-point line, but players like Gordon and Tucker have shown a competency to catch-and-shoot triples from well beyond the three-point line.
The Spurs’ perimeter players need to be aware of their surroundings and close out with efficiency in order to win this matchup and compete against the western Conference elite.
Young players have seen significant minutes in the preseason for Popovich. They need to put their young legs to use and get out on the fastbreak by forcing turnovers and intercepting passes around the perimeter. Murray, White and Walker are all proficient in this area, but needs to show aggressiveness in order to put their skills to use.
They could certainly be saving themselves for preseason, but this may be a valuable learning experience for some of the team’s rising talent.