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Rockets-Spurs Is the 2017 Playoff Series We Need

James Harden is exploding. Kawhi Leonard is still incredible. And if their teams meet in the playoffs, here’s how it will play out.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

On the evening of December 31, 2016, my sons and father-in-law and I went to the Rockets-Knicks game in Houston. We’d gone there to watch James Harden and also to boo Derrick Rose. The game was neat because basketball games are generally neat, but mostly because Harden, one of the four best players in the league right now, went all-the-way nuts. He put up 53–16–17, a stat line that nobody else in the history of the NBA had ever put up. Two things regarding that:

  1. It wasn’t until after the game that I fully realized what we’d just watched. Harden has always appeared to be a bit into himself as a human. That’s of course understandable because, I mean, as far as humans and specific talent goes, he is exceptional. (This remains a fantastic response to a question.) As a basketball player, though, he plays as if he is unimpressed with his own offensive brilliance (and occasionally even annoyed by it), which is super interesting. To be sure, there are moments where he celebrates things, and those moments are fun. But what I’m talking about here is the way he moves, the way he floats, the way he bends the hard edges of the game into nubs. He doesn’t look especially quick, but he always seems to get where he wants. He doesn’t seem especially powerful, but he rarely seems to get bumped or pushed off his path. He doesn’t feel magnificent when he’s standing there during free throws or timeouts the way LeBron does or the way Allen Iverson used to, but he is. It’s uncanny. I remember looking at the scoreboard in the arena after the first quarter and seeing he had 8–6–6 and it was just like, “Wait. What the fuck?” When he gets in that Destroy The Earth mode (which is often), he’s great to watch. I’m very happy that he’s on his Dwight Howard Is Gone liberation tour of terror this season. The NBA is better when James Harden is flexing.
  2. Children do not care about history. The day after the game, I was sitting on the couch at home trying my very best to make myself invisible so nobody would talk to me because that’s how I spend something like 60 percent of my awake time at home. (The other 40 percent is broken up among me lying down [10 percent], hiding in the bathroom [10 percent], and attempting to talk my wife into making out with me [20 percent].) I was watching a basketball show and they were talking about Harden’s performance. One of my sons was walking past, so I called him over. I explained how historic the thing we’d watched Harden do the night before was, expecting him to be at least a little impressed. He was not. His response: “Daddy, did the nachos taste weird to you? They tasted weird to me.” Children do not care about history. They care only about nachos.

At any rate, I say all that to say this: At the moment, the Rockets are in third place in the Western Conference. In first place are the Warriors (31–5), and, barring something strange happening, like maybe mass alien abduction in the Bay Area or Draymond Green just kicking his own guys in the dicks during games, they are going to stay there for the rest of the season. In second place are the Spurs (29–7). And then in third place are the Rockets (28–9). That’s the first tier of teams in the conference. On the second tier are the Clippers (24–14), the Jazz (22–15), the Grizzlies (22–16), and the Thunder (21–16). It seems unlikely that anyone from that second tier is going to be able to chase down anyone from that first tier. (The Clippers would be the most likely candidate, but Chris Paul is a character written by Shakespeare so there will only ever be heartbreak for him.) Which means that the Spurs and Rockets should finish in the second and third spots at the end of the season. Which means that for the first time in over two decades we might be headed toward a Spurs-Rockets matchup in the playoffs.

I’m already looking forward to it. There’s an interstate rivalry in place. (Houston does not like San Antonio, San Antonio does not like Houston, and both San Antonio and Houston hate Dallas.) There’s all the history tucked into the matchup (like Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 35 seconds in 2004, or Hakeem Olajuwon stripping David Robinson naked in 1995). And the teams appear to be ultra-evenly matched:

  • Both teams have superstar players, one of whom is an exceptional offensive talent, the other of whom is an exceptional defensive talent.
  • Both teams are in the league’s top five in offensive efficiency (the Rockets have a 112.3 rating to the Spurs’ 110.2).
  • Both teams have defensive efficiency ratings under 105 (the Spurs are the best in league at 101.3; the Rockets are at 104.8).
  • Both teams are in the league’s top three for true shooting percentage (Rockets are second, Spurs are third).
  • The teams have opposite playing styles, which generally makes for a longer, harder playoff series. (The best bit: The Rockets play at the fourth-fastest pace in the league. The Spurs play at the fourth slowest.)
  • And from a personal vendetta angle: Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni have a long, jagged history of playoff meetups. D’Antoni coached the Phoenix Suns as an assistant or head coach from 2003 to 2008. In four of those seasons (2003, 2005, 2007, 2008) the Suns faced the Spurs in the playoffs, each time losing, three times watching the Spurs go on to win a championship. (The most contentious of those meetups was in the 2007 playoffs. That’s the one where Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table [LOL] at the end of Game 4, causing Boris Diaw and Amar’e Stoudemire to run off the bench, resulting in their suspensions for Game 5, which the Suns lost.) I imagine it would feel very, very good for D’Antoni to finally put an L in Popovich’s ledger.

So they’re probably going to play each other, the Rockets and the Spurs, and it’s going to be excellent. Here’s an extended guess at how the series, potentially the second best of the 2017 playoffs (behind Cavs-Warriors 3), will untangle itself:

Game 1 (in San Antonio): Harden is electric (31–10–8), and the game is close most of the way throughout, but his supporting cast falters at the end, and Danny Green gets loose for three big 3s midway through the fourth to open the game up. Spurs win 106–97. “If the Rockets are going to let guys like Danny Green shoot wide-open 3s, they don’t stand a chance,” says Max Kellerman on the following morning’s First Take. “I agree!” yells Stephen A. Smith. “But let’s not forget this: If the Rockets can’t score more points than the Spurs,” Smith continues, “THEY. WILL. NOT. WIN. I have said that all season. Every game the Rockets lose, it’s because they don’t score more points than the other team! It doesn’t take a genius to see the solution to the problem here, Max!” “Well, what is it?” Kellerman asks. “MORE. POINTS!” Stephen A. yells.

Game 2 (in San Antonio): This is one of those games where the Spurs don’t make a bucket and the Rockets don’t miss any. It’s over by halftime. Rockets win 115–87. Tied series. The main good thing that happens is Davis Bertans, playing extended minutes in garbage time, nearly gets into a fight with Montrezl Harrell. We find out later that it’s because Harrell kept calling Bertans “Tall Jesse Plemons” and asking him about what it was like to work on Friday Night Lights.

Game 3 (in Houston): The Eric Gordon Game. Gordon goes nuts, hitting something goofy like eight 3s in the second half. The Spurs keep it close (they never fall behind by more than six in the fourth quarter), but they can’t quite close the gap, either. With Rockets in possession and up three in the final 30 seconds of the game, we get our first big Harden vs. Kawhi moment. It’s tense and it’s perfect — Harden dribbles out the clock between the 3-point line and the half-court line, and the arena is going nuts. With nine seconds left in the game (and three seconds on the shot clock), he crashes into the lane, looking for arms — literally any set of arms — to get tangled in. They never present themselves, and so he tosses up a prayer of a shot. It clanks off the back of the rim. Trevor Ariza, ever a bug, manages to get just enough of his long witch fingers on the ball to poke it into Ryan Anderson’s hands. He’s fouled. He makes both free throws. Rockets win 101–96. Rockets lead the series 2–1. LaMarcus Aldridge scores three points on 1-of-8 shooting.

Game 4 (in Houston): Harden, hoping to get a death grip on the series, goes into 1999 DMX mode and finishes with 36–6–6. The only problem, though, is that Kawhi decides he’s done fucking around, and he goes into 1998 DMX mode. He finishes with 42–14–8, including the final seven points for the Spurs, while also holding Harden scoreless in the last two minutes of the game. Spurs win 98–94. Tie series, 2–2. Popovich after the game: “Kawhi realized tonight he’s pretty good at basketball. I hope he does more of that.”

Game 5 (in San Antonio): The blowout. The Spurs shoot something stupid like 65 percent from 3. The Rockets can never quite get their footing. “WHAT DID I TELL YOU?!” Stephen A. yells. “Let me ask you a question, Max. Let me ask you a question. Max, can I ask you a question?” “You just asked me three,” Max responds, smirking. “Did the Rockets win last night?” Stephen A. asks. “No,” Max says to him. “Did the Rockets score more points than the Spurs?” Stephen A. asks. “No.” Stephen A. sighs so heavily and with such exaggeration that his lungs literally come out of his mouth and splat down on the table between him and Kellerman. “You see what the Rockets are doing to me, Max?! Do you see?!” “I see, Stephen A. I do,” says Max. “We’re gonna take a quick break,” says Molly Qerim. “When we get back, we’re gonna talk more about these lungs, Stephen A.”

Game 6 (in Houston): The James Harden Fuck You game. 41–10–11. The Spurs lead by five with 90 seconds to play, but Harden scores six straight on three step-back jumpers, each more devastating than the last. Rockets win 105–104. “We all knew it was going seven,” says D’Antoni. Popovich: “I thought they’d beat us in four, actually.”

Game 7 (in San Antonio): (For real: I’m legit already nervous about this game.) (Basketball is easily the best sport.) With two minutes left and the Rockets up by one, the Spurs run an iso for Kawhi. He jabs on Ariza, spins into the lane, then drops in a gorgeous one-hander. Harden answers by drawing and making two free throws. Patty Mills misses a contested 3 but Manu Ginobili grabs the long rebound. He drives into the paint, Eurosteps around Ryan Anderson so thoroughly that Anderson starts talking with an English accent, then lays it in. 40 seconds left. Harden bucket. Kawhi bucket. Harden bucket. Kawhi bucket. THIS IS INCREDIBLE. Six seconds left. Spurs up one. Rockets with the ball. The Rockets try to screen to get Kawhi off Harden but it doesn’t work. Kawhi is a part of Harden’s DNA now. Harden dribbles at the 3-point line. He hits a crossover so nasty that several people in stadium scream in horror. It gives him just enough space to get up and over Kawhi. Harden rises. Kawhi follows. Harden flicks the ball at the rim. It’s in the air. It’s in the air. It’s in the air. The buzzer sounds. The ball’s still in the air. Will it ever fucking land? It’s still in the air. Then, devastation: swish. Rockets win by one. Game over. Series over.

Fuck.

(The Rockets go on to play the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, where they lose in five. In the offseason, the Spurs trade LaMarcus Aldridge to the Kings for DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins and Pop fall in love. The Spurs win four of the next nine championships.)

All stats current through Thursday afternoon.