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Kawhi Leonard Makes His MVP Pitch in One of the Best Games of the Season

And other takeaways from an awesome Rockets-Spurs bout

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With Kevin Durant out for at least a month with a sprained MCL and no guarantee he’ll come back at full health, the door to the Finals has been cracked open for the Spurs and the Rockets, the current no. 2 and 3 seeds in the Western Conference. San Antonio hasn’t missed a beat without Tim Duncan, quietly putting together yet another excellent season, with the second-best record and point differential in the NBA. Houston, meanwhile, has returned to elite form thanks to the addition of several lethal 3-point shooters around James Harden that has allowed Mike D’Antoni to recapture the magic of his days in Phoenix.

The matchup between the two teams is a fascinating contrast of styles. The Spurs have the no. 1-rated defense in the NBA and they play at one of the slowest paces in the league; the Rockets have the no. 2 offense and play at one of the fastest paces. The Spurs play two traditional big men for most of the game and pound the ball into the post, while the Rockets spread the floor as wide as possible and run Harden in an endless blizzard of pick-and-rolls. Something has to give when they meet, and the two teams could wage a titanic battle in the second round of the playoffs if this seeding holds.

Monday’s game more than lived up to expectations, with the Spurs pulling out a 112–110 win in a thrilling, back-and-forth affair. They were able to beat the Rockets at their own game, thanks mainly to an incredible performance from Kawhi Leonard, who matched Harden basket for basket. Both players finished with 39 points, and they traded turns making huge plays in the final minutes. Here are five takeaways from a classic game between two of the best teams in the NBA, and what it could tell us about a potential playoff series between them:

1. This Was an MVP-Caliber Night From Kawhi Leonard

Harden and Russell Westbrook have been at the forefront of the MVP discussion all season, but what Leonard has done in San Antonio is every bit as impressive. He is averaging 26.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists a game on 48.8 percent shooting and he has the highest usage rate of his career (31.2), all while continuing to serve as the tip of the spear for the best defense in the NBA. That’s what separates him from his fellow MVP front-runners out West: Leonard can guard Harden and Westbrook, but they can’t guard him. That distinction ended up being the difference in Monday’s game.

Kawhi causes a ton of matchup problems for Houston. The Rockets like to close games with three-guard lineups and Trevor Ariza at the 4, but Ariza is the team’s only perimeter player who even has a chance at contesting Leonard’s shot one-on-one. Putting Ariza on Kawhi forces Harden, the biggest of their three guards, to guard one of the Spurs’ big men. However, there was only so much Ariza could do Monday, considering how locked-in Kawhi was. By the end of the game, the Rockets were trapping Leonard every time he came off a screen in order to get the ball out of his hands. If he had a live dribble and only one defender in front of him, he was going to get a shot any time he wanted:

On the defensive end of the floor, Kawhi was able to stem the bleeding on the Harden pick-and-roll, which had shredded the Spurs defense for most of the night. After cycling through several different strategies to defend Harden in the two-man game (none of which worked), Gregg Popovich sicced his two-time Defensive Player of the Year on the Rockets MVP candidate. Kawhi was able to fight over screens and prevent Harden from getting free lanes to the basket. He sealed the game by hitting a pull-up 3 with 25 seconds left that gave the Spurs a two-point lead and then chasing down Harden from behind and blocking what would have been a game-tying layup on the next possession:

LeBron James is still the best basketball player in the world, but if voters have tired of giving him the MVP award, Kawhi is the best two-way player of the remaining candidates.

2. Harden Demolished the Spurs’ Big Men

The Rockets got off to a 39–23 lead at the end of the first quarter thanks to a steady diet of Harden pick-and-rolls. The Spurs had no answer for Harden coming off a screen and going downhill at the basket with 3-point shooting all around him. Whenever the Spurs’ big men dropped back and didn’t guard the screen aggressively, Harden took the ball right at them, forcing them to either commit to him or leave Clint Capela open for the lob. The beauty of D’Antoni’s offense is that someone is always open, and the Spurs gave up a shocking number of easy dunks at the start of the game:

Eventually, the Spurs decided to switch either LaMarcus Aldridge or Dewayne Dedmon onto Harden, rather than commit multiple defenders to slowing him down and leaving one of the Rockets shooters on the perimeter. Aldridge and Dedmon are pretty mobile for a pair of 7-footers, but they had no chance of guarding the Rockets star one-on-one. Harden had the ball on a string, toying with the Spurs’ big men until they gave him enough room to launch an off-the-dribble 3. Harden was 6-of-9 from beyond the arc Monday, and there’s nothing a bigger defender can do when he’s making shots like this:

One strategy the Spurs might try in the future is having their big men trap Harden and force the ball out of his hands. None of the Rockets’ screeners have the offensive versatility of Draymond Green, who has made a living killing teams in four-on-three situations when they double Steph Curry in the pick-and-roll. The Spurs will want to force guys like Capela, Nene, and Ryan Anderson to make plays on the move instead of Harden. Dedmon and Aldridge may not be able to guard Harden, but they are fast enough to trap him if aided by another player.

3. Which Rocket Should Kawhi Guard?

The Spurs started the game by changing up their defensive assignments, putting Kawhi on Ryan Anderson and leaving Aldridge on Ariza, a move reminiscent of what the Thunder did to the Warriors in last season’s playoffs, when they put Durant on Green and left one of their big men on Harrison Barnes. By putting his best wing defender on Anderson, Popovich signaled his intention to switch every screen between Anderson and Harden so that the other three defenders could stay on their men and stagnate the Rockets’ ball movement.

The Rockets responded by having Anderson spot up deep behind the 3-point line, essentially taking Kawhi out of the game on defense. With spacing that deep, Harden can run either pick-and-pops with Anderson or pick-and-rolls with Capela, and the Spurs might be better off putting Kawhi on the Rockets center, who doesn’t have the post game to punish smaller defenders. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Kawhi is more than big enough to handle that assignment. Capela doesn’t represent nearly the same type of threat as Anderson does off the ball; Kawhi could gum up the Houston offense if it elects not to use Capela as a screener.

The Spurs’ best option Monday was to use Kawhi as the primary defender on Harden, since his ability to fight over screens and stay attached to Harden simplifies their pick-and-roll coverages. The problem is that Kawhi exerting that type of energy on defense would put a tremendous amount of pressure on him over the course of the game, although it’s not like he ever seems to get tired. Kawhi has gone from a defensive specialist to a player who specializes in doing everything, and he can shape-shift into whatever the Spurs need him to be on a given night.

4. How Small Can These Teams Go?

From a strategic perspective, the most interesting part of the game came at the end of the second quarter, when Popovich downsized and played Kawhi at the 4 with Aldridge at the 5. That lineup forced Anderson into a near-impossible assignment on one of the Spurs wings, since there was no way he could guard Leonard and Capela was on Aldridge. The Spurs spent a lot of the game trying to hunt down Anderson on defense, either attacking him off the dribble when he was on a smaller player or posting him up when he was on a bigger one.

D’Antoni responded by downsizing his own lineup, moving Anderson to the 5 and taking his big men out of the game entirely. The Rockets had five 3-point shooters on the floor, and Aldridge was painfully exposed in the pick-and-roll defense. In 36 minutes this season, the lineup of Anderson, Harden, Eric Gordon, Patrick Beverley, and Ariza has an offensive rating of 119.5 and a defensive rating of 100.8. It would probably wear down defensively if D’Antoni used it more regularly, but it’s a lethal option he has in his back pocket when he wants to juice the offense.

If we look down the road to a potential playoff series, the Spurs have the wing depth to counter that unit by playing Kawhi at the 5 with some combination of Danny Green, Jonathon Simmons, Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills, and Tony Parker. Conversely, the Rockets could put an even smaller lineup on the floor, with Sam Dekker in Anderson’s place at 5. Dekker could be huge for the Rockets because he has the speed to switch screens on defense and the playmaking ability to drive into gaps in the defense and kick the ball out. He just needs to knock down open shots, as he is shooting 32.6 percent from 3 this season and went 1-for-5 from the floor Monday.

5. How Much Juice Does Tony Parker Have Left?

Parker had 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting Monday, but the majority of those shots came on wide-open looks in the corner. When Kawhi was handling the ball in the pick-and-roll, Parker was invariably the man the Rockets left open, and he made just enough 3s (3-of-6) to make them pay. However, when he was forced to create his own offense off the dribble, he lacked the extra burst that he was known for in his prime and he struggled to finish in the lane:

At 34, Parker is slowing down to a crawl. He’s averaging his lowest points per game (10.6) since his rookie season and his lowest field goal percentage (46.9 percent) since his third season. He was ineffective in the past two postseasons, and the decline in his offensive game puts a ton of pressure on Kawhi. Parker isn’t capable of offering much on the defensive end of the floor, either, particularly against the waves of attacking guards the Rockets can throw at him. The Spurs are going to need more from the point guard position to win a championship, and Parker may no longer be able to provide it.