The NBA playoffs are the final referendum on a squad, both on their style and on their substance. And there are two ways to make it through the four-round gauntlet.
The first way is forcing your opponent to play your style of basketball. The Golden State Warriors do that. They impose their style and game plan on teams, forcing the opposition to try to keep up with the Dubs’ cadre of high-scoring studs, and that’s an impossible task for almost anyone. Even before Kevin Durant came to town, the Warriors forced you to play their game.
But there’s also a another way to get yourself 16 playoff wins: versatility. You can take what the opposition has to offer and adjust, beating them at their own game.
The greatest example of that type of championship-caliber team (and one of the reasons I’ll always feel this squad is underrated historically) is the Rockets’ 1994 title team. That group adjusted in every round, depending on their opponents’ strength.
First, they took down the Portland Trail Blazers simply with a more talented team. But that’s when things got interesting. The Phoenix Suns tried to run them off the floor offensively, but the Rockets out-gunned Charles Barkley’s squad in the end.
They followed that up by beating Utah at their own game and out-hustling the John Stockton/Karl Malone Jazz, and culminated their title run by out-muscling the vaunted the New York Knicks defense in the NBA Finals. They beat each of those teams with different styles of play.
This 2017 version of the Rockets will have to win that second way (their three-point shooting is just not quite consistent enough to do it the first way), and at least through one round, Houston has shown they have the chops to do it. The Oklahoma City Thunder took away the Rockets’ three-point bombardment by sitting down on most of the Houston shooters (the Rockets shot poorly on open threes as well), and the boys in red were forced to find an alternative mode of success.
They responded by driving to the paint and scoring there practically at will while drawing fouls, and they also crashed the glass, out-rebounding the league’s best team on the boards in three of the five games and overall for the series. It wasn’t the exact performance anyone expected, but it got them through Round 1 in five games and showed more versatility in their game than most had them pegged for.
But on Monday, the Rockets start their second-round series against San Antonio, and it’s no secret that the Spurs present an entirely different set of challenges than the Thunder. So what are the Rockets facing that’s going to re-test their character as a team and their ability to adjust?
Well, first (despite Ethan’s level-headed pleas, I’m going to get in one last dig here), they’re facing a better superstar. Yes, I said better. Kawhi Leonard was second on my personal (and totally meaningless) MVP ballot this year, behind James Harden (Westbrook was third).
While he may not be the swirling force of nature Russ is, Leonard’s a complete basketball player, and his more measured approach offensively is supercharged by some elite defense and an uncanny ability to still go supernova exactly when needed, practically on demand. See Rockets-Spurs back on March 6.
He’s also been arguably the best individual player so far this postseason. He’s certainly been the most efficient, averaging 31 points per game with a 71.2 (yes, you read that correctly) true shooting percentage. In other words, the Rockets aren’t going to be bailed out by a fourth-quarter Westbrookian chuckfest again in this series.
The Spurs will also be able to punish the Rockets inside with LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. The Thunder had a lot of success attacking the Houston front line early. Taj Gibson had his way with Ryan Anderson and Steven Adams’ strength often overwhelmed Clint Capela. The Thunder, however, made the mistake of going away from this strategy as the games wore on, lineups were shuffled and Westbrook decided no one else on his team was allowed shoot.
Don’t expect Houston to be so lucky against San Antonio. The Spurs will attack Anderson early and often, once again forcing Mike D’Antoni’s hand with lineup shuffling. And with no Russ around to jack up 28 second-half shots (that actually happened), if both Anderson and Capela are again having their troubles, is Nene capable of bailing out the Rockets front line one more time? My emotions say yes. My brain says, “I’m not so sure.”
The Spurs can also stroke it from deep. They led the league in the regular season with 39.1 percent shooting from three, and they’re draining 41 percent from beyond the arc so far in the playoffs. By comparison, the Thunder were the league’s worst shooting three-point team this regular season, and they shot just 31 percent from deep against the Rockets in the first-round.
There’s no Andre Roberson to leave open, no Victor Oladipo to choke and no Brodie to jack up multiple, ill-advised threes in clutch time playing on San Antonio. Instead it’s Leonard, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobli and even Davis Bertans, who can all cash their triples with regularity.
The Rockets will need to be more disciplined defensively in this round, and they’ll also have to counter the Spurs’ shooting with some of their own. The Rockets shot just 28 percent from three against the Thunder, with Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza downright invisible.
Anderson shot 3-24 in the series, while Ariza was 3-16 and is now 7-44 in his last two playoff series. Even The Beard shot just 24 percent in the first-round. The Houston bench — namely Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, and Nene — managed to come through and save the Rockets.
So even though they showed they can win without it in the first-round, the return of the Rockets’ vaunted three-point attack, particularly from the starters, is imperative in the second round.
But even if they can return to their bombs-away nature, the Rockets will still need to be versatile to get by the 61-win Spurs. They’ll need to adjust to a more efficient superstar, a team more willing to attack their weaknesses and one who can shoot the three at the best rate in the league.
If not, the second-seeded Spurs will be chugging on to the West Finals. But if the Rockets can continue to make like the ‘94 team and be versatile enough to take their opponent’s best shot and still adjust, it’ll be our heroes in red who live to see another round.
My personal prediction (AK will have the TDS one, as always, in his pre-game) is we see the evolution of this team right before our eyes. The Rockets pull off the upset in seven games, with a character-building and Golden State-ready win on the Spurs’ home floor in the final contest.