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Kawhi Leonard vs. James Harden is overblown and other observations from 4 Rockets-Spurs games

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We watched every minute of this year’s Rockets-Spurs games. You’ll be surprised by what we learned...

NBA: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past few days, I brewed a ton of iced tea and watched every minute of this season’s four Rockets-Spurs regular season games.

The coaching staff of both teams has certainly done this a dozen times in the past few days. I’ve never done it before. It was informative, very anticlimactic and left me drifting to sleep last night muttering something about “dragging LaMarcus Aldridge to the three point line.”

Here’s what I saw in the four games. Broken into three ridiculous sections: Short thoughts, deep thoughts and questions I set out to answer.

Short Thoughts

  • Six points was the biggest margin of victory in the four games. Houston won game one and San Antonio won the next three.
  • In game one, Houston held on for the win, but coughed up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. In game three Houston coughed up a 10-point lead with four minutes left to lose the game. In game four Houston coughed up a 16-point first half lead.
  • Corey Brewer started the first two Rockets-Spurs games and played six minutes in the third. That happened. I mentioned it. Let’s forget about it.
  • In these four games, James Harden averaged 38 minutes, 29.8 points, 9 rebounds, 11.8 assists and 6.3 turnovers while shooting 47 percent from the field, 29.4 percent from three and 86.1 percent from the line. He had triple-doubles in games one and two.
  • James Harden was a much better passer than scorer in several of these games. He would have had 20 assists in one of the games if Rockets shooters had made shots.
  • Sam Dekker played valuable minutes in the first three games. I’ve been hard on Dekker as the season has gone on (example one and example two), but he was an absolute spark plug in the first three games against the Spurs, and he was present for the fourth.
  • Lots of NBA watchers have ragged on LaMarcus Aldridge, but is this actually the best role he can play? You can see this Spurs team winning a title, which you never could have said of Aldridge’s Blazers teams.

Deep Thoughts

The Leonard On Harden Narrative Is Being Overblown:

The “Kawhi Leonard can shut down James Harden” plot is being overblown for a simple reason: Leonard doesn’t spend the bulk of his time guarding Harden.

The breathless Twitter posts and analyst discussion would leave a casual observer to expect this to be Olajuwon-Robinson, where there was no question the two best players were going at each other on both ends for 40 minutes a night. That’s just not the case here.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Leonard ate Houston’s lunch in the closing minute of the last Rockets-Spurs game. That was both impressive and sucked as a Rockets fan. Mom made us our favorite sandwich and Leonard stole it.

But it wasn’t the norm over the full four games of this series. In clutch moments we should fully expect Leonard to start possessions on Harden, but Houston should respond by running their offense, not isolation plays, and forcing Leonard off Harden in switches.

Until the third quarter of the fourth game, the regular primary defender the Spurs put on Harden in this series was Danny Green or Jonathon Simmons. Leonard often stuck with his own matchup by defending Trevor Ariza or wrapping up Ryan Anderson.

A telling sign of this commitment, until the final quarter of game four, Leonard wasn’t mirroring Harden’s minutes, instead both coaches were sticking to their rest and rotation schedules.

Surprisingly, Popovich didn’t put Leonard on Harden at the end of games one, two and three, which were each one- or two-possession games at some point in the closing minutes. Harden was left to go at a mixture of Green, Simmons andGinobili in those closing frames.

The instances before the end of game four where Leonard started a possession on Harden were when the Spurs went with a lineup of Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi and two of their big men, Aldridge, Pau Gasol or David Lee. These were often short stretches in the second or third quarter and this match up was forced by on-court personnel, not an attempt to ice Harden.

The Spurs seem to find more value in having Leonard mobile or entirely swallowing up another Rockets player than stuck to Harden.

The Rockets react to this by leaving Leonard’s man out of the pick-and-roll action and trying to hide them both in the corner as much as possible. And in the instances where Leonard gets switched on to Harden, it’s not an instant solution because the Beard is already moving with a head of steam and denies Leonard the ability to control the possession.

Game four was a problem. Leonard switched on to Harden with six minutes left in the third quarter and the Spurs down seven. Leonard’s best defensive effort against Harden in these minutes was when Harden attempted to pass from above the foul line.

Leonard’s so smart and so freaking long he anticipates Harden’s decisions and disrupts passes when he picks up his dribble. There’s no space for Harden’s pocket passes or even a split second for Harden to pick up his dribble without a predetermined plan of action.

The Rockets immediately responded to the matchup by having Nene set picks above the three point line. This makes sense as he’s Houston’s largest screener, but it also means Leonard can fight through the screen without fear of getting burned by Nene. The Brazilian isn’t going to shoot a three and Leonard’s biggest strength is disrupting the pass Harden would want to make.

Houston should play this matchup with Anderson or even Gordon setting the screen and forcing tougher choices from the Spurs. And Harden is fine in this matchup if he just moves past it. He gets in trouble when he picks up his dribble with Leonard still on his hip.

Harden also gets in trouble against Kawhi’s when he resurrects heroball. This season we’ve seen much less of Harden’s heroball persona than in past years, but it was evident in the final possessions of game four that Harden wasn’t passing. When that’s the case, Kawhi is always going to have an advantage.

During the run of play, when Harden is firing on all cylinders, Leonard has to defend against a full arsenal of potential drives, passes and shots.

Of course, Gregg Popovich is one of the best there’s ever been. And I’m just a dude pounding on a laptop that rests on a $20 Ikea table. So we could see any portion of these dynamics change or Leonard play the entire series like he did the fourth quarter of game four. It will be fun to watch for.

Houston Wants To Force Aldridge/Gasol/Lee/Dedmon Onto Harden:

Make sure you keep count of the number of times Houston switches LaMarcus Aldridge on to Harden. It’s going to be a ton.

The dynamic is easy to understand. Harden can very easily blow by Aldridge, Pau Gasol, David Lee or Dewayne Dedmon, or he can use the dribble moves haunting Enes Kanter’s dreams to free himself for a clear three pointer. Getting one of those four switched on to Harden at the three point line is the best match up for Harden and clears space in the lane for lobs or hand offs once Harden blows by one of the big men.

The light shines brightest on Aldridge. That’s because he’s normally matched with Ryan Anderson. Assuming Popovich believes Anderson will shoot better than last series from three (a dismal 12.5 percent) then he’s not going to let his defenders abandon Anderson when this switch happens.

When the screener is Clint Capela or Nene, there’s time for the Spurs defender to recover, because the only move after the screen for those two is to roll toward the basket or float to the top of the three point line to reset the offense.

The real threat is when Anderson sets the screen. He’s always trying to free himself for a three pointer after setting the screen, which means Harden’s man has to stick with Anderson while the Spurs big man has to stick with Harden. Expect this to be Aldridge, as much as Houston can get it.

Mike D’Antoni is notorious for finding something that works and fastidiously exploiting it until his opponent changes tactics.

There is a hilarious converse to this. In the instances where the switch happens and Harden takes a three, Popovich appears to have instructed his big man to run the floor right away for a cherry picking basket. Both Aldridge and Gasol got away with this move. Harden baked them at the three point line, but he missed the shot and they got an easy dunk because they put their head down and ran right after he released.

It’s funny to see one of them all alone on the offensive end of the floor for a dunk.

This whole theory could apply to Mills or Parker if Leonard is guarding Harden and having success.

San Antonio Will Feed Aldridge Against Anderson

This is all eye test. I’ll pull some numbers on this depending on what I see in game one, but expect San Antonio to feed LaMarcus Aldridge against Ryan Anderson.

Aldridge is the biggest guy in this series (miss you, Boban) and Anderson isn’t much of a banger who has a career-long reputation for suspect defense.

The Spurs went to Aldridge against Anderson in the post each time they had two big men on the court. The double bigs forced Capela or Nene on to Gasol or Lee and left Anderson to deal with Aldridge.

It will be interesting to watch the teams tinker with matchups as Dewayne Dedmon was a non-factor in the first three games of the series and received limited minutes in game four. Nene is coming off a wildly spectacular playoff run, but the pressure will be on him as Capela can’t contain these Spurs bigs. They exploit his inexperience and often get him up in the air. The Rockets shouldn’t want this match up as badly as the Spurs do want it, but there’s limited versatility for the Rockets.

Ariza is on Leonard duty. So D’Antoni can’t go with Ariza at the power forward when the Rockets are staring at Aldridge, Gasol and Leonard on the court at the same time. The duty will fall to Anderson, which means Aldridge will get what he wants and Rockets fans will have to accept the possibility of another dismantling by a methodical clinic of unappealing post of moves and mid-range jumpers.

Lou Williams Can Make The Difference

In the third match up with the Spurs this season the Rockets didn’t hit a three-pointer until midway through the second quarter. They lost that game by two points, while only making six threes in the game. Houston desperately needed another shooter.

Adding Williams naturally changes the personnel of this series, but it also changes the fact that the Rockets often played the Spurs’ brand of basketball in these regular season games because their three point shooting was flat against the I-10 rivals.

Houston shot a disappointing 29.2 percent from three against the Spurs this season. That’s six points below the Rockets rate on the season. They did manage to get up 38.5 threes on average in these four games, which is only two below the season average.

There were several problems with Houston’s three-point shooting in these four games:

  • Houston didn’t have its current personnel. Corey Brewer, K.J. McDaniels, Tyler Ennis, Dekker and Montrezl Harrell all played a serious enough amount of minutes to drag the Rockets’ second unit offense down (Dekker was a bright spot). Houston’s current offense is predicated around having four three-point shooters on the floor at all times. At points in games against the Spurs this season, Houston had no more than two.
  • The Spurs play really good close-out defense. They’re an old team, but you wouldn’t know it from how close they are to many of the Rockets three point attempts. They’re not quick enough to force Houston’s shooters off the three point line like the Utah Jazz, but the Spurs use their basketball IQ to close out on almost every shot. It’s fun to watch an aging Pau Gasol close out on a Patrick Beverley three point attempt.
  • James Harden took lots of pull up threes because San Antonio’s defense burns the shot clock. Mike D’Antoni’s ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ Suns faced this same problem. Despite having a historic offense run by Steve Nash they’d fail to crest 100 points in some playoff games against Popovich’s defenses. The Spurs had the best defense in the league this season by defensive rating and in their games against Houston their composure and system forced Houston into taking bad three pointers, not wide open looks Rockets shooters have been hitting all year.

Getting back to Lou Williams... Eric Gordon saved the Rockets bacon in two of these games with his shooting. He lead the Rockets in scoring in game two. In game three he went cold and the Rockets offense faltered at several points. Williams coming off the bench in game two or three would have been the difference and in this series it could easily be the difference.

Questions I Wanted To Answer

Before watching these games I wanted to write out some basic questions and see if I could answer them game by game to get some answers. Here’s the notes I wrote down:

When does Leonard guard Harden?

We covered this extensively above. The game four third and fourth quarter were really the only time the Spurs put Leonard on Harden to try and ice him. That’s because the Rockets do an efficient job of screening Leonard off if he starts on Harden.

When the Spurs personnel is Mills, Ginobili, Leonard and two bigs, then Kawhi draws the assignment because Mills and Ginobili get toasted. If Green or Simmons come on, then they draw the assignment.

So the time you’re most likely to see Leonard on Harden is going to be an end of game situation. The advantage will be Harden if the Rockets run their offense, but it’s Leonard’s if Harden and the Rockets drop into hero ball.

How did the Rockets deal with the Spurs size?

Popovich tried to play with Houston in game one. Pau Gasol got chased from the floor in that game and only played 13 minutes. Popovich didn’t like the result of that game and went with two big men in the next three games.

Aldridge, Gasol and Lee don’t create many problems for the Rockets offense. They’re smart enough to rotate with the ball, so Houston isn’t getting too many open shots, but they’re not contesting many shots.

They do create rebounding problems on both sides of the floor. The Rockets just are not big enough to contend with two near-seven footers who have a primary goal of swallowing rebounds.

On the offensive end David Lee carved up Houston’s second unit. He plays the style of bully-ball that only Nene can really match up with. But with Gasol in the game as well, Nene was drawing that assignment, leaving Lee to bully Dekker, Anderson or even Ariza.

Also, Pau Gasol is suddenly a legitimate three point shooter so the Spurs don’t even mess with their spacing by playing him and Aldridge at the same time.

The challenge for Houston will be keeping two Spurs big men from controlling the game when James Harden is on the bench to torment then or when Nene is on the bench.

Did the Spurs let Harden or shooters beat them?

In games one, two and four the Spurs let Harden beat them, but not with a flurry of points. He was a better passer and assist man in several of these games and could have had 20 assists in game two if any Rockets shooters hit shots in the first half.

Harden’s three point shot wasn’t present for each of these games, but he played the role of puppet master so well. Driving to the basket and finding pocket passes, lobs and cross court flings.

Eric Gordon burned the Spurs in game two. He led the Rockets in scoring and shot 7 - 12 from three. He was the one Rocket finding and capitalizing off of open threes.

How did the Spurs close against Houston in each game and how did Houston do so?

Game 1: The Rockets second unit failed to score or defend at junctures in each half where the Spurs halved each Rockets double digit lead. The Spurs then went to Aldridge and Leonard coming out of a timeout and the Rockets first team offense and defense were sluggish after

Game 2: Houston played from behind starting early in the first quarter. They only scored 40 points in the first half and were down 14 in the fourth quarter. The Rockets were able to draw the deficit down to 4 (and a final margin of 6) only after Eric Gordon started draining threes.

Game 3: Turnovers. Harden had at least three turnovers in the final two minutes of the game and the Spurs turned several Rockets miscues into drilled three pointers to erase a ten point deficit in the closing minutes. San Antonio went on an 11 - 0 run to erase a lead with about two minutes to go.

Game 4: Leonard was sublime. In the fourth quarter he hit everything he took and absolutely dominated this game. Current day Malik Rose could have been the four other players on the Spurs for five minutes of this quarter and it wouldn’t of mattered. That’s how good Leonard was. But Harden can be this good as well.

How did Ariza guard Kawhi?

Ariza has clear orders to try and push through or go around any picks or screens and to stay with Leonard. He does a quality job of doing this at the three point line, but when Leonard moves towards the paint San Antonio very efficiently uses their bigger bodies to free Leonard.

As the series went on they got smarter about screening Ariza while Leonard moved to the basket both with and without the ball. Look for lots of screens when Leonard moves across the lane using his long arms to create shots and lots of screens on Ariza when Gasol or Aldridge are holding the ball above the free throw line. The Spurs have a compliment of lays to free Leonard for an easy dunk or layup.

Watching these games you also saw Ariza getting a bit slower as the season progressed. In game one he created problems everywhere, despite Leonard’s big line.

So, there’s what I learned. It will be intriguing to see what Popovich tries to change and how the Rockets will match up with San Antonio’s bigs running D’Antoni’s eight man playoff rotation.

Prediction: There’s going to be lots of flopping on both sides. And the Rockets will win in six games.