NBA Playoffs Preview: Spurs vs. Rockets

Travel won't be much of an issue for this in-state matchup. Who holds the edge based on the analytics?

Based on early-season over/unders, it wasn't unreasonable to expect a San Antonio Spurs-Houston Rockets matchup in the 2017 NBA playoffs.

The Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas set an over/under of 56.5 wins for the Spurs (which they bested by winning 61 games). For the Rockets, it was 41.5. So a 2-versus-7, opening-round matchup seemed plausible.

But I'm in the future also, and we know that the Rockets vastly outplayed those expectations by winning 55 games.

The Rockets took care of business against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, needing only five games to do so. The Spurs had their hands full against the Memphis Grizzlies, who took the Spurs to six games.

What do the numbers have to say about this series?

San Antonio Spurs (2)

Record: 61-21
nERD: 71.7
Championship Odds: 19.5%

Houston Rockets (3)

Record: 55-27
nERD: 64.4
Championship Odds: 5.0%

Regular Season Series - Spurs 3, Rockets 1

I almost didn't want to include the wins here because this suggests the Spurs had an edge, and don't get me wrong -- they did. But they lost the first game 101-99. San Antonio won the final three by scores of 106-100, 102-100, and 112-110. They don't get much closer than this series was.

In Houston's lone win, on November 9th, they maintained a 53.8% effective field goal percentage, actually below their third-ranked 54.5% rate in the regular season. That helped them win despite a 17.8% turnover rate (compared to 9.3% for the Spurs). San Antonio shot just 43.5% in terms of effective field goal percentage, down from their 10th-ranked 52.4% mark on the full season.

In that game, James Harden produced 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 15 assists (along with 8 turnovers). Ryan Anderson was the only Rocket with more than 15 points (he had 20), but three other players pitched in at least 10. The Spurs had less balance, as Kawhi Leonard (34 points on 26 field goal attempts) was the only Spur with more than 14 points, and only LaMarcus Aldridge (14) and David Lee (10) hit double-digits.

San Antonio turned it around in the second game, three days later, posting an effective field goal percentage of 57.2% and holding the Rockets to a mark of 46.6%. This helped them overcome just a 6.3% offensive rebounding rate and Houston's dominant 32.7% offensive rebounding rate of their own. Five Spurs scored in double digits, and Leonard maxed out at 20 in the win.

Harden was forced into 7 turnovers but managed a triple-double: 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists. Eric Gordon generated 27 points on 16 field goals (he was 7 of 12 from three-point range).

The script was similar in Game 3, on December 20th, despite Patrick Beverley's return. The Spurs (54.5% effective field goal percentage) outshot the Rockets (41.3%). The scoring was balanced yet again. Leonard scored 21, Aldridge had 17, Danny Green had 12, Pau Gasol scored 10, Patty Mills chipped in 13, and Manu Ginobili produced 12 points.

Harden missed a triple-double (31 points, 10 boards, 7 assists) but cut down hist turnovers to 3. Trevor Ariza (16), Gordon (13), Nene (10), and Sam Dekker (10) scored in double digits, but Houston fell shy. The Rockets outscored the Spurs 33-19 in the third quarter but were outpaced 31-22 in the final frame and lost.

The Rockets shot better (54.5%) in Game 4 on March 6th and got 12 assists from Harden, who scored 39 of his own. He did have 7 turnovers, though. As is usual for the Rockets, the rest of the cast pitched in: Ariza (13 points), Gordon (12), Clint Capela (12), and Beverley (11).

The Spurs won despite being outshot (51.7% effective field goal percentage), in part because they won the offensive rebounding battle, narrowly, for the first time in the series (20.0% to 16.7%). Leonard matched Harden's 39 and had 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and just 1 turnover. Parker scored 19, and Aldridge had 15, but nobody else hit 10 points.

But Leonard left the Rockets with this image to close out their final regular season matchup.

How the Spurs Can Win

You can't stop every option that the Rockets have, and this sounds counter to the common knowledge that the Rockets love the three-pointer, but the Spurs need to protect the rim. Here's why.

This season, 32.0% of Houston's field goal attempts came from within three feet of the rim, the fifth-highest rate in the NBA. They converted on 66.7% of those field goals, second-highest. That opens up the ability to shoot threes, which they did on 46.2% of their field goals, a league high.

In all, 78.2% of their field goals were from either within three feet of the rim or beyond the three-point arc. No other team topped 69.0%.

Houston despises the mid-range shot, and if the Spurs can protect the rim, they could force the Rockets into suboptimal looks for their offense.

Spurs Player to Watch - Literally Anybody Other Than Kawhi Leonard

Despite being the 2 seed and a 61-win team, the Spurs have one player who can create his own shot consistently.

Tony Parker can, too, as he scored 15 or more in five of six games against Memphis in the first round. However, Parker will have to deal with guarding Beverley, Harden, Gordon, or Ariza, depending on the lineups on the court, and he'll have to go against them offensively. Neither of those sound too promising. Perhaps this leads to more run for Mills or Dejounte Murray.

Aldridge and Gasol simply aren't the players they used to be, but the Rockets allowed a league-high 68.9% field goal percentage on shots from within three feet in the regular season. Even a single dominant paint game might be needed by the Spurs to beat the Rockets in this series.

Perhaps the biggest x-factor of all is Danny Green. The Thunder's Andre Roberson (6'7", 210 pounds) gave Harden trouble last series, and Green (6'6", 215 pounds) is a strong on-ball defender. If San Antonio can stick Leonard or Green on Harden at all times, that could stymie the Houston offense, provided Eric Gordon isn't simply guarded by Parker.

Green also is a career 40.0% three-point shooter, and if he corrects from his 37.9% rate during the regular season, he could become a postseason star again.

How the Rockets Can Win

Just going at the Spurs with each possession and overwhelming them. It sounds dumb to say, but the Rockets have the depth and ball handlers (Harden, Beverley, Gordon) to keep pressing all 48 minutes in every game.

Houston was third in pick and roll points per possession by the ball handler (1.13) this season and third by the roll man (0.93). The Spurs ranked sixth (0.97) and seventh (0.83), respectively, against those plays this season.

Houston mitigated Leonard this season, and the Spurs had a net rating of -0.1 against Houston when Leonard was on the floor. They had a net rating of 19.6 with Leonard on the bench in 40 minutes, but the Rockets shot just 16.1% from three on 31 attempts with Leonard off the floor, something that has plagued Leonard's on/off splits all season long.

Withstanding Leonard's presence and using their depth to beat the Spurs' bench sounds like a recipe for success -- and something Houston can manage.

Rockets Player to Watch - James Harden

So, depth is how the Rockets can advance. However, it all starts with Harden, who was stuffed at times in Houston's series against the Thunder. Houston had a net rating of 1.8 with Harden on the court in the opening round, and that jumped to 18.2 when he was on the bench.

Not all of it had to do with Oklahoma City's struggling bench. Harden shot just 46.7% in terms of effective field goal percentage against the Thunder, down from 52.5% in the regular season. Against the Spurs, he had a 53.0% effective field goal percentage during the regular season.

Even with their on-court shortcomings at times, the Spurs are still one of the most efficient teams in the NBA, thanks to their nearly impeccable system. Still, they don't have all the answers for the Rockets, and it'll be on Harden to take advantage.

If Harden gets the pick and roll going with Nene and Capela and absorbs the defense of Green and Leonard, allowing Beverley and Gordon to create plays, then the Rockets really have a shot at this series.

Series Prediction

By the numbers, the Spurs have the advantage. Their 7.9 net rating on the season is second-best in the league. Houston's 5.4 is third. That's not a small gap by any means, but there's a realistic chance that Leonard doesn't get enough help to fend off the Rockets' multifaceted attack.

It's tough to envision Houston taking a Game 7 in San Antonio if the series goes the distance. If they can get even one game on the road, they could close it out in six.

According to our algorithms: Spurs are 67.34% favorites.

My final prediction: Rockets in six.