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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets

The Spurs enter the final 10 games of the season with a match-up against their Texas rivals in Houston.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If the regular season were to end today, the Spurs and Rockets would be matching up in the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Luckily, that’s not the case, and we have 10 games left for the Spurs to fight for better playoff positioning and a chance to continue to work on the habits that allowed them to peel off 9 straight wins before coming out and staying flat for much of Wednesday’s loss to the Miami Heat.

In some ways, Wednesday’s loss felt similar to the Spurs’ last game against the Rockets, a 108-101 loss back in December. The Spurs fought back in the 4th quarter of that game, even taking the lead on a Rudy Gay triple, only to see Houston come up with the offensive rebounds down the stretch to help put away San Antonio.

With road games coming against Boston and Denver before the season ends, this will likely be the hardest one for the Spurs to steal, but one that they very well could if they get back to how they played during the majority of the 9-game win streak, particularly Monday night’s victory over the Golden State Warriors.

San Antonio Spurs (42-30) @ Houston Rockets (45-27)

March 22, 2019|7:00 PM CT

Watch: FSSW| Listen: WOAI

Spurs Injuries: Dejounte Murray (ACL — out)

Rockets Injuries: Kenneth Faried (knee — probable)

James Harden: Scorer

James Harden has been on a tear for much of 2019. Harden is averaging 36 points a game this year to go along with about 8 assists a game as the Rocket’s de facto point guard, even though they also employ Chris Paul. When Paul went down with a hamstring injury early in the season, head coach Mike D’Antoni placed the ball in Harden’s hands even more and Houston took off.

San Antonio has done what would appear to be a solid job of “limiting” Harden, especially in terms of shooting percentages. He’s averaging 29 points in 3 games against the Spurs, but on a slashline of 35/26/83, all way below his season averages. We all know by now that Harden is going to hunt 3 point shots and free throws (13 3PA and 11 FTA a game) using an arsenal that consists of step-backs, lefty layups, and crafty floaters.

Some shots, like this 3, come with little to no movement and just consist of Harden rocking his defender to sleep before he pulls the trigger:

Or this:

Both examples are difficult shots off the dribble, and it actually looks like Rudy Gay and Derrick White do a solid job of getting their hands up to contest the shot. A vast majority of Harden’s shots are of this ilk, rocking his defender to sleep before just pulling the trigger and even though he takes 13 shots from distance a game, he’s connecting on a modest 36% of them.

When he’s not shooting 3s or drawing fouls, Harden is doing what he can to get into the paint. This becomes easier when he forces a switch on to a big man, as he does with LaMarcus Aldridge in this example:

A few head fakes and dribbles and Harden is right by Aldridge and at the cup finishing, even though DeMar DeRozan is there to contest.

Coming off a 1-point loss to the Grizzlies in which he went for 57 points, it’s easy to look at Harden’s scoring and think of it as a key reason for Houston being in the position that they’re in. However, the shooters that they employ all benefit from teams just overreacting to Harden and sending help, freeing them up for wide-open looks, which brings us to our next point . . .

James Harden: Passer

The amount of pressure Harden is able to put on individual defenders usually means that help defenders are watching and getting ready to react more often than not and to his credit, Harden is ready to find teammates that find themselves wide-open because of his gravity.

Here we see a simple Dribble Hand Off (DHO) between Clint Capela and Harden that gets Harden rolling with his left hand on his way to the basket:

DeRozan gets stuck behind the play because of a screen, which allows Harden to receive the hand-off with zero resistance. Though DeRozan was able to sort of get back into the play, Harden had already pulled Jakob Poeltl away from the paint and Capela, rolling to the dunker spot, is just waiting for the lob.

They ran the something similar later, but instead of getting a lob out of it, Harden finds P.J. Tucker wide-open for a 3:

Harden gets a rub from Tucker and receives a pass from Capela at the top of the key and attacks immediately off the catch. DeRozan is once again behind the play, though Aldridge is still in a position to guard the lob relatively effectively should Harden attempt that. Instead, he sees Davis Bertans cheating off of Tucker and hits him in his sweet spot (no one shoots more corner 3s in the NBA than Tucker).

In this instance, anyone would be better off making Houston score 2 points rather than 3. Houston employs plenty of guys that have no fear of pulling the trigger from distance and having a guy that is willing to feed them the rock is a major plus for their offense. The Spurs may be better of letting Harden get his and doing their best to contain the other guys that fill out their roster.

San Antonio allowed Miami to shoot 16/35 in their loss on Wednesday night, many of them with little resistance. To win this game, it will take an effort like the one we saw against Golden State Monday night, with the entire defense locked in. Staying stuck to the hip of shooters should help them to minimize the damage of Houston’s perimeter attack.

Vegas line: Rockets by 6

Prediction: Rockets by 6

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