Spurs vs. Houston Rockets
Western Conference semifinals
Game 1: Monday, 8:30 p.m., AT&T Center
Game 2: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m., AT&T Center
Game 3: Friday, 8:30 p.m., Houston
Game 4: Sunday, 7 p.m., Houston
Game 5: Tuesday, May 9, (time TBD), AT&T Center*
Game 6: Thursday, May 11, (time TBD), Houston*
Game 7: Sunday, May 14, (time TBD), AT&T Center*
SAN ANTONIO – After watching Kawhi Leonard score 18 first-half points in Game 2 of the Spurs-Grizzlies first-round playoff series, TNT studio analysts Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley made headlines when they said Leonard is the second-best player in the NBA behind LeBron James.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich went one better after the Silver and Black beat Memphis 103-96 last Thursday to win the series 4-2.
“Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now,” Popovich said after Game 6. “He’s the best two-way player and does it all with such class. It’s impressive.”
Leonard averaged 31.2 points against the Grizzlies and had a career playoff-high 43 in a gut-wrenching 110-108 overtime loss in Game 4. He set a torrid pace in the first round, shooting 54.8 percent from the field, 48.3 percent from beyond the arc and 96.7 from the foul line.
Leonard also anchored a Spurs defense that finally made enough stops to turn back a gritty Memphis squad in the last two games of the series.
The Spurs will need that kind of herculean effort from Leonard again when they play the high-scoring Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals. Led by prolific guard James Harden, the Rockets beat Oklahoma City in four of five games to advance to their first postseason meeting with San Antonio in 22 years.
Game 1 is at 8:30 p.m. Monday at the AT&T Center.
The Silver and Black took the season series with Houston 3-1, but their victories were by a total of only 10 points. Leonard had a stellar game in the Spurs’ 112-110 win in the teams’ final regular-season meeting, scoring 37 points and hitting a game-winning 3-pointer with 25 seconds left. He capped his big night by blocking a layup by Harden as time ran out.
For the Spurs, playing solid transition defense and guarding against the 3-point shot will be critical for success against the freewheeling Rockets.
“That’s the whole key to this series,” Parker said Sunday. “They’re a very good offensive team. A lot of 3-point shooters everywhere. We understand that it starts with our defense. If we don’t stop them, it’s going to be a long series for us.”
While Harden is Houston’s catalyst, the Rockets have five other players averaging double figures – Eric Gordon (16.2), Lou Williams (14.9), Ryan Anderson (13.6), Clint Capela (12.6) and Trevor Ariza (11.7).
The Spurs-Rockets matchup is being billed as a duel between Leonard and Harden, two MVP candidates who have carried their teams throughout the season. But Leonard, who will alternate with Danny Green in guarding Harden, downplayed the one-on-one matchup.
“I’m just trying to win,” Leonard said. “That’s all that I want to bring out of this series, my team on top coming out with a victory."
While Leonard was careful not to get caught up in the hype of the matchup with Harden, he acknowledged that playing against the Rockets guard brings out the best in him.
“Definitely,” Leonard said, “especially if I’m guarding him. It’s going to take my all to make it difficult for him out there. He’s a great scorer.”
Harden averaged 29.8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 9.5 assists in the four regular-season games against the Spurs. He had triple-doubles in the first two games.
The Rockets had a tough time containing Leonard, who averaged 28.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists in the four games against Houston.
Harden averaged 33.2 points against OKC. He led Houston with 34 points in the series-clinching 105-99 victory at home in Game 5 last Tuesday, but his shooting was off. Harden made only 8 of 25 field-goal attempts, including 2 of 13 from the 3-point line. As usual, Harden cashed in at the free-throw line, hitting 16 of 17 attempts.
The Rockets sped up their offense, spread the floor and let the 3-pointers fly in their first season under coach Mike D’Antoni.
Houston averaged 112.8 points and shot 28.4 percent (48/169) from the 3-point line in the five-game series with the Thunder. The Rockets were 134 of 168 (79.8 percent) from the free-throw line.
Houston ranked No. 2 in the NBA behind Golden State in scoring offense, averaging 115.3 points. But the Rocket were near the bottom in scoring defense, ranking 26th among 30 teams with a 109.6 average.
The Spurs averaged 104.7 points against the Grizzlies after averaging 105.3 (14th) during the regular season. They were second in scoring defense (98.1).
The Silver and Black could be hard-pressed to keep up with the Rockets if they can’t slow down Harden, and don’t get more scoring help for Leonard and Tony Parker. LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds in the series clincher against Memphis, will be counted on to score more.
Can San Antonio match Houston’s firepower if it comes to that?
“We don’t want to, but I feel if we have to, I think we’re capable,” Green said. “We have enough guys that can put the ball in the basket, especially at an up-and-down-pace type of game. I think most guys prefer it. I think they’ll give us an opportunity to score more. We’ve just got to take care of the ball.”
Except for going scoreless in a Game 3 loss to Memphis, Parker has stepped up his game in the playoffs, averaging 16.3 points. He averaged only 10.1 points during the regular season, his lowest scoring output since his rookie season in 2001-2002.
“In the playoffs, it’s all about matchups and stuff like that,” Parker said. “Memphis made a couple of decisions on how they were going to guard me, so I was able to be aggressive and take advantage of it. I always try to do what is asked."
“This series (vs. Memphis) I was asked to be more aggressive, so that’s what I did. The regular season, I tried to get LaMarcus and Kawhi the ball. I just do whatever Pop wants.”
Spurs-Rockets 2016-17 regular-season series (Spurs, 3-1)
Rockets 101, Spurs 99, Nov. 9, San Antonio
Spurs 106, Rockets 100, Nov. 12, Houston
Spurs 102, Rockets 100, Dec. 20, Houston
Spurs 112, Rockets 110, March 6, San Antonio
Spurs-Rockets playoff history (Rockets lead 3-0)
1980: Rockets won first-round series 2-1
1981: Rockets won Western Conference semifinals 4-3
1995: Rockets won Western Conference fi