The Spurs can begin a defensive possession with Kawhi Leonard guarding James Harden all they want, but when Harden shoots or passes it’s after a series of picks, screens and flares which make it unlikely Leonard is the closest Spur or puts the NBA’s best defender a step behind.
It’s an hardwood version of chess. With Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni doing everything possible to both utilize and protect their most important assets.
That’s where Ryan Anderson comes in.
Think about this statement. Ryan Anderson always had the Spurs best or worst defender guarding him: Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge respectively.
That reality makes him the most important chess piece in the Rockets offense, even if he never takes a shot.
Let’s talk about each scenario.
When Kawhi Leonard guards Ryan Anderson
Before game one I watched all four Rockets-Spurs games from the regular season and wrote about when Leonard guards a man other than 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...”
In game one this was Ryan Anderson. When Leonard guarded him, he went to the corner and hung out without doing anything. Leonard can’t abandon him, Anderson shot 52.9% from the corner this season.
CBS & Hardwood Paroxysm’s Matt Moore has a great article with lots of gifs that illustrates what he’s termed “Kawhisolation.”
My favorite moment of this match up was this sequence:
Ryan Anderson is guarded by Leonard and Harden has the ball above the three point line. It looks like Anderson is moving to set a pick for Harden, but it’s a decoy move. Anderson curls straight to the corner instead, taking Leonard with him.
When Aldridge guards Anderson
Anderson’s size plays a serious role here. At six-foot-ten it doesn’t make sense to put a guard on Ryno. He makes a move to the paint when the Rockets put up a shot so there’s a chance doing that opens up increased offensive rebound opportunities for Houston.
In the Spurs two big man scheme Aldridge slots in at power forward and draws the Anderson assignment. This is a boon for Harden as Aldridge is the Spurs worst perimeter defender (right now he looks like their worst defender all around).
In the first quarter of game one Leonard switched on to Harden with 9:30 minutes left to go in the quarter. This put Aldridge on Anderson.
The next two plays the Rockets ran a pick-and-roll with Anderson...
This pin down play resulted in Anderson running through the screen by Capela and getting wide open for a three off a pass from Harden. He missed the shot, but it signaled early Anderson was going to shoot.
Just a minute later Anderson set the pick by himself.
Aldridge didn’t leave Anderson and Kawhi went under on this pick. It slowed him down and Harden got straight to the basket for a layup with Leonard trailing by a step and unable to contest.
And here’s the great play Matt Moore pointed out.
The Rockets and Harden are so committed to exploiting Aldridge with Anderson that they run the same play twice in four seconds. It didn’t work the first time, so they reset and do it again for an open Anderson three.
Anderson with a smaller defender
As we mentioned earlier in an attempt to break the Aldridge pick and roll exploitation the Spurs moved Ginobili on to Anderson.
When that happened the Rockets just attacked Aldridge with Ariza and Anderson used his size to go down low to rebound on Ginobili.
Here’s where he started:
Here’s where Anderson went straight to:
He drew a foul on Ginobili here when the ball came high off the rim.
The Spurs didn’t like that match up, so they put Ginobili on Ariza and Aldridge went back to Anderson.
So... guess what Houston did. They went right back to the pin down with Aldridge...
Who used this pin down to receive a pass from Harden as Aldridge got waylaid and drain another open three.
All of this is reinforced by Anderson’s ability to drill three pointers from three feet behind the line, as SB Nation profiled in January, and his size which draws larger defenders to the three point line or smaller ones to the interior.
Houston can’t run this type of play with reliability against the Warriors, Draymond Green will eat Anderson alive in all these situations. But because the Spurs have no contemporary versatile power forward/centers to deal with Anderson they’ve got no good options here.
And that makes Ryan Anderson the Rockets most critical chess piece (of course in this metaphor James Harden is the player, or king, or just leave him out of this metaphor because he’s so unquestionably important. Yea. Do that).