Tonight, the San Antonio Spurs will try to keep their nigh-unprecedented playoff run going in Los Angeles, where Chris Paul and the Clippers await with playoff demons to exorcise.
These teams are titans, both among the five best in the league (Warriors, Rockets and Grizzlies/Cavs/Bulls/Hawks take your pick), and the winner will come to Houston Monday night. They both are very capable of winning a series against the Rockets, but they are also beatable.
I've found myself going back and forth while watching the last two games. Tim Duncan is playing impossibly well for a 39-year-old man, and the idea of Kawhi Leonard guarding James Harden is not exactly enticing. On the other side, Chris Paul was the third-best player in the league this season, and the Rockets just got roasted by J.J. Barea.
A week and a half ago, The_Bearded_Watt posted a Fanpost poll asking you who you wanted the Rockets to face in the semifinals. Forty-nine percent of you said the Spurs, 31 percent Clippers and 19 percent "we're screwed either way." Way to keep the faith, folks.
Why the Clippers?
James Harden did not played well against either of these teams in the regular season, but he did do considerably better against the Clips than against the Claw. He went for 20 points, 5 rebounds and 7.3 assists in four games against L.A., being guarded by J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes. He only shot 35.8 percent from the field in those games, but he at least got more involved in the game.
Redick is a good defenders, and Barnes is long, but neither of them are capable of stopping him from initiating the offense. He shot 10 free throws a game against them, but DeAndre Jordan prevented him from finishing at the rim at his typical rate. If the Beard can have some freedom to operate, the entire offense flows.
DeAndre Jordan is a problem in the paint. And Blake Griffin just had a 26-point, 12-rebound, 6-assist, 4-block game. They run the 4/5 pick-and-roll just as well as the Rockets -- maybe a little better, since Blake doesn't turn it over as often -- and are both explosive finishers like the Rockets' front line.
But they are just two men. The Rockets have three who are all capable of matching up with them without giving too much away in Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith. It's unlikely Doc Rivers will ever have these two off the floor at the same time, but at some point any of Spencer Hawes, a hobbled Glen Davis or Ekpe Udoh will see the floor. When that happens, the Rockets will have an undeniable example on the front line. They can take advantage.
Boris Diaw in the Spurs lineup can hold his own, and his crafty game will cause problems. Plus, he can step out beyond the arc and be a threat. Hawes can theoretically do that, but he hasn't at all this year.
The biggest thorn in the Rockets' side will be Paul, of course. In the playoffs so far, he's scoring 22 points, dishing out 8 assists and gathering two steals per game. The Rockets do not have their usual Chris Paul harasser, Patrick Beverley. If they did, I'd be much more thrilled about this matchup.
Enter Trevor Ariza. He's been among the best perimeter defenders in the game this year (he deserves to make an NBA All-Defense team) and he will be charged with the Point God. His length will be of great use, and his terrific defense footwork will give him a far better shot at staying with him than Jason Terry or Pablo Prigioni.
On the other side, Jason Terry can try to start out on J.J. Redick, but he should probably see more time on Matt Barnes. Barnes can shoot, but he's not a post-up threat nor a dynamic passer.
Barnes is a reasonable matchup, especially for Prigioni to help off of and get those sneaky steals. In the playoffs so far, he's seemed to get at least one or two a game. What a pickup he's turned out to be after a rough start, frankly.
Dwight Howard is very capable of shutting down DeAndre Jordan, who isn't nearly as skilled inside as Superman. And, if Blake Griffin turns into 2014 LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin McHale should learn from his mistakes and not be afraid to put Dwight on him early. Terrence Jones is, finally, strong enough to keep DeAndre off the offensive glass, or at least slow him down.
Putting all that aside, there's still one glaring reason to want to face the Clippers: free throws. With DeAndre Jordan on the floor, he effectively cancels out this strategy. If one coach starts intentionally fouling, the other will right back. Neither will want to engage in that sort of war of attrition. The teams can beat each other in the run of play alone. That should be a joy to watch.
I don't need to tell you what a Spurs series would be like on the free throw line. DeAndre Jordan can:
Why not the Spurs?
It begins and ends with Kawhi Leonard. The defensive player of the year is a force to be reckoned with, and one of the few people in the league, maybe the only person, who legitimately terrifies me as a Rockets fan. Dwight Howard proved capable of great things against a weak Mavericks front line. But the Rockets need James Harden at his best.
No one is at their best with Kawhi Leonard guarding them. In the back-to-back late in the season, he shot 11-34 and the Rockets lost both games. Al-Farouq Aminu's length gave the Beard problems against the Mavericks, and Leonard is longer, has quicker hands and is a better offensive player.
I have confidence in Trevor Ariza to slow down Kawhi, but that's where he has to be. James Harden will be on Danny Green and have to stay with a dead-eye shooter -- probably his worst matchup, considering he ball-watches on defense for steals -- and that leaves Jason Terry/Pablo Prigioni on Tony Parker.
Parker is better than either Monta Ellis or JJ Barea, and definitely better than Rajon Rondo. He'll live in the paint against the JET, and Dwight will be forced to rotate over. There are no two better players in the league at executing that situation like Parker and Duncan.
I think Dwight would do great things against Tim Duncan, who is shorter and less athletic than Tyson Chandler, who fought valiantly (despite the whining) last round. Terrence Jones and Josh Smith will have less room on the 4/5 pick-and-roll, and the Rockets' offense would suffer as a result. Danny Green, a very capable defender, will give Trevor Ariza lots of problems, and JET won't be able to exploit Tony Parker.
I think the Rockets are capable of beating the Spurs, but after watching all these teams, all season, there's only one scenario in which I'd pick the Rockets winning the Western Conference semifinals: if they play the Clippers.