kawhi harden

San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Houston Rockets (3)

How the Rockets can win: The main question that will determine how Houston does in this series surrounds the health of MVP candidate James Harden. If Harden is still hobbled by his nagging ankle injury suffered in game three against the Oklahoma City Thunder that saw him slowed down and hampered throughout the latter half of that series.

Harden only shot 41.1% including 24% from three point range. He still averaged 33.2 points per game, but the San Antonio defense is way better than anything he faced against the Thunder. Especially when he’s matched up against fellow MVP candidate and likely defensive player of the year candidate Kawhi Leonard who can shut Harden down.

The Rockets need to try to switch off the Harden-Leonard match-up as much as possible. They have to get him on Trevor Ariza or another wing player and hope try to isolate him on the wing as much as possible so that they can attack through weaker defenders like Pau Gasol and Tony Parker.

Houston has a major advantage with shooters that you can’t abandon so the Spurs won’t be able to play a lot of help defense when Ariza, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Patrick Beverly or Lou Williams are out there as long range threats. This can open things up for Harden and allow the Rockets to focus their attack on the Spurs weaker defenders.

The Spurs got a huge series from Tony Parker to help them beat the Grizzlies. Houston can neutralize him with Patrick Beverly and can also deploy Ariza and Gordon who offer far superior wing defense than any of the depleted Grizzlies defenders were able to offer up in that series. I’d also expect Houston to run a lot of Beverly-Harden pick and rolls to go at Parker and Patty Mills on the other end.

Clint Capela could have a huge series against the Spurs. He struggled against the athleticism of Steven Adams and Taj Gibson but should have a far easier time against Paul Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge. If Capela can break out big offensively, the Rockets have a real chance to steal this series.

The most important thing for Houston to do in this series is not to turn over the ball. If the Rockets commit turnovers, the Spurs will make them pay as San Antonio scored 20 points per 100 possessions off of turnovers in head-to-head match-ups against Houston this year.

How the Spurs can win: When I think about this Spurs-Rockets match-up, this is the sequence that comes to mind: Kawhi Leonard hitting a three and then blocking James Harden to win the game for San Antonio.

The MVP race is often spoken of about being down to Russell Westbrook and James Harden. If defense mattered as much as it should, Kawhi Leonard would be the unanimous choice.

Leonard is the engine that drives the Spurs and has been excellent so far in the playoffs. He averaged an incredible 31.8 points per game over the series and scored a playoff career high 43 in game four. Leonard also lead the team in assists with 3.8 and steals with 2 per game. His true shooting percentage for the series was 71.5% as he completely torched the Grizzlies.

If Houston can’t find a way to shut Kawhi down or slow him on defense, the Spurs will win. It’s not just his scoring but his ability to make plays and start sequences that will cause nightmares for Houston. His ability to start transitions after forcing turnovers makes him especially dangerous to a Rockets team that is often turnover prone.

The Spurs can expect more scoring from Danny Green who was relatively cold in the Grizzlies series and shot an abysmal 35.8%. Those shots will start falling for Green and he will be able to offer a lot on the backend as well.

LaMarcus Aldridge had a tough go against the physical Grizzlies front court and although Nene has had a solid playoff run, he should be able to offer more offensive support and presence as a second option than he was able to in the Memphis series which should help the Spurs secure the win.

Another player who struggled against Memphis was Dewayne Dedmon who was supplanted by David Lee for much of the Grizzlies series but should be able to use his athleticism to grab rebounds and be the primary rim protector against the Rockets in this series. If Dedmon is able to establish himself down low, the Spurs will win the battle on the boards which was essential to their victory in the first round. San Antonio had an incredible 43.2% offensive rebound rate to the Grizzlies’ 18.9%.

The Spurs could also potentially punish Houston if they go small with any combination of Aldridge, Gasol and Dedmon or even have the line-up versatility to match them. There are a lot of different wrinkles to the San Antonio line-up that Gregg Popovich could deploy and cause some serious match-up problems for the Rockets.

Imagine small power forward Kawhi Leonard. That could cause Mike D’Antoni some headaches should he resort to small ball.

Why you should watch: This is going to be the best series of the second round. Two great coaches facing off and deploying their MVP candidates against each other. Kawhi Leonard against James Harden will be amazing, but the chess match between Pop and D’Antoni will be just as fun.

Who will win: Ultimately the Spurs defense will prove to be to stifle Houston’s attack and Green and Aldridge will get going again. Kawhi Leonard will keep his incredible run going and Houston’s isolation gambit won’t work. The Rockets will give a good fight and this series will be the most entertaining of round two by a mile, but ultimately the Spurs will triumph.

Prediction: San Antonio in six.