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Kawhi Is Trending Up, Harden’s Trending Down, and How the Series Will Shift in Game 3

Five takeaways from Game 2, including what the Spurs have to do to make up for Tony Parker’s absence

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

The Spurs flipped the script on the Rockets in Game 2. Two days after they were blown off their home floor in a 27-point loss in Game 1, San Antonio beat Houston by 25 points on Wednesday, 121–96. It happened incredibly fast, as the Rockets were down by only five points at the start of the fourth quarter, before a 30–5 run in a little over nine minutes completely changed the dynamic of the game, if not the series. The Spurs found their rhythm in that stretch, going smaller with only one big man on the floor and beating the Rockets with their own style of play, spreading the floor and picking apart the Houston defense.

Unfortunately for San Antonio, the biggest story line from Game 2 happened in the middle of that run, as Tony Parker crumpled to the ground with a noncontact knee injury and could not leave the court under his own power. Gregg Popovich admitted in the postgame press conference that it did not look good, and Parker’s status for the rest of the playoffs is in doubt. After an underwhelming regular season, Parker had sipped from the Fountain of Youth before the start of the playoffs, averaging 15.9 points and 3.1 assists a game on 52.6 percent shooting. He had been picking up a lot of the slack left by LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been playing like a shadow of himself in the postseason.

As is often the case when a player goes down, the biggest concern for the Spurs is not replacing Parker, but replacing his replacement. Will Popovich go with an untested rookie (Dejounte Murray) to replace Patty Mills as the backup point guard? Will he just shorten his rotation and have Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili bring the ball up the floor? Or could someone like Kyle Anderson get a bigger role? The Spurs were still able to click without Parker in Game 2, but filling the hole in the rotation created by his absence will not be easy. Even without him, though, the way they played on Wednesday will force Mike D’Antoni to go back to the lab as the series shifts to Houston. Here’s a look at five takeaways from the game and what they mean for the series going forward:

Kawhi Leonard Made His MVP Case Against the Rockets … Again

Kawhi put together as dominant a two-way performance as you will ever see in Game 2. The Spurs superstar had 34 points on 13-of-16 shooting, seven rebounds, and eight assists, and perhaps most impressively, he had only two turnovers despite playing with the ball in his hands for most of the game. He was also the primary defender on Harden, helping to hold the MVP candidate to 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting. Russell Westbrook is probably going to win the MVP, but he never had a game as impressive as Leonard’s in Oklahoma City’s five-game loss to Houston in the first round. Kawhi essentially threw a perfect game.

The biggest key to stopping the Rockets from scoring is to force them to inbound the ball from under the basket, as they are lethal in transition. As has been the case in many of their meetings, Popovich’s best defense against D’Antoni’s teams was a better offense. The Spurs went from scoring 99 points on 36.9 percent shooting in Game 1 to 121 points on 54.5 percent shooting in Game 2. Everything went through Kawhi: He got whatever shot he wanted when Houston had only one defender on him, and he made the right pass every time the Rockets sent help. He is averaging 4.6 assists per game in the playoffs, almost doubling his previous postseason high of 2.8 assists per game last season. Even when he doesn’t get the assist himself, he’s making the pass that leads to one:

On the other side of the ball, Kawhi short-circuited a lot of the Rockets offense by refusing to be screened when he was guarding Harden. When the Houston big men did make contact on him, Kawhi fought over the screen quickly, not giving Harden much room to breathe on the play. While Leonard never seems to get tired when he’s in the game, exerting this much energy on both ends of the floor will only get more difficult as the series progresses, especially after Parker’s injury. So far, Kawhi is putting together a two-way performance similar to LeBron James in 2011, when he shut down league MVP Derrick Rose in the Eastern Conference finals while also dominating the ball on offense.

The Spurs Attacked Ryan Anderson Relentlessly

A cursory look at the box score would indicate that Anderson had one of his best games of the playoffs, with 18 points, on 7-of-9 shooting, and eight rebounds. After being guarded by Kawhi for most of Game 1, Anderson took advantage of going up against the much smaller Danny Green by grabbing four offensive rebounds. However, Anderson also had the worst plus-minus of any Houston player in Game 2 (minus-26), and that wasn’t entirely a coincidence. The Spurs treated him much like the Rockets did Pau Gasol and David Lee in Game 1, putting him in as many pick-and-rolls as possible on defense, forcing the Rockets to send help and then moving the ball until they found an open shot.

The majority of the Spurs’ run at the start of the fourth quarter came with Anderson playing at power forward and defending a much smaller player. Anderson has never been considered much of a defender, but he’s stout enough (6-foot-10 and 240 pounds) to at least hold his own in the post, and the Rockets would love it if the Spurs continued to feed the guys he’s guarding on the block, like they did in Game 1. Instead, they spread out the Houston defense and forced Anderson to defend in space in Game 2, which is not something he can do well. On a team with many poor defenders, Anderson is the weakest link:

The problem for D’Antoni is that he has been using Trevor Ariza as Anderson’s backup at power forward ever since Sam Dekker went down with a broken hand in early April, but he also has to keep Ariza in the game to match up with Kawhi. Dekker made his first appearance since the injury in garbage time of the first two games of this series, and D’Antoni may turn to him in Game 3 to play as a small-ball power forward when Ariza needs a breather. Dekker is much more athletic than Anderson, but he’s also not nearly as consistent a perimeter shooter. It’s now the Rockets’ turn to make a few adjustments, and Dekker’s ability to get back to 100 percent could be big for Houston.

More Jonathon Simmons, Please

Simmons has shown intriguing potential as a 3-and-D player ever since his debut with the Spurs as a 26-year-old rookie last season, but Pop has been reluctant to trust him with important minutes in the playoffs. He didn’t play at all in their second-round loss to the Thunder last season, even though his length and athleticism likely would have been the team’s best counter to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Simmons had 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting in 20 minutes in Game 2, and he was the only Spurs player on the floor for the entirety of their game-sealing 30–5 run.

San Antonio played only one traditional big man at a time during that stretch, alternating Aldridge, Gasol, and Lee at center with four perimeter players around them. Simmons, at 6-foot-6 and 195 pounds, played as a small-ball power forward for the first four minutes of the fourth quarter until Kawhi returned to the game, and the Rockets didn’t have an answer for him. Maybe the biggest hole in their rotation is their lack of long and athletic wing players other than Ariza. Patrick Beverley, Eric Gordon, and Lou Williams are all 6-foot-4 or under, and none of them has the size to really bother Simmons when he’s slashing to the rim:

Simmons is averaging only 13.6 minutes per game in the playoffs, and increasing his playing time, at the 3 and the 4, might be the easiest way to fill the gap created by Parker’s absence. His outside shot will be key going forward: He’s a career 32.2 percent shooter from 3, and the Rockets will want to force him to prove that he can beat them from the perimeter rather than letting him get into the paint. He will be much higher up on the Houston scouting report coming into Game 3, and it would not surprise me if the Rockets treated him like Tony Allen. For the Spurs to win this series, Simmons will need to maintain his production from Game 2.

James Harden’s Not Completely Healthy, and It’s Showing

The Rockets offense is built around Harden’s ability to score out of the pick-and-roll and attract so much defensive attention that it creates wide-open shots for his teammates. They are going to go only as far as he can carry them, and they will need him to score much more efficiently than he did in Game 2. Harden was 2-of-9 from beyond the arc, and he repeatedly bailed out the Spurs defense by settling for long-range shots rather than going to the rim. He shot 34.7 percent from 3 this season. He’s a good shooter, but he’s not a great one:

Even when his shot is not falling, Harden is usually able to score efficiently by getting to the free throw line, but he attempted only six free throws Wednesday, and all six came off of 3-point shots on which he baited the defense into fouling him. Harden loves to initiate contact when attacking the basket, and the Spurs did an incredible job of contesting without fouling. He’s usually able to punish big men when they are between him and the rim, but there were an awful lot of plays that looked like this in Game 2:

Harden didn’t seem anywhere near 100 percent, and he hasn’t been the same player since spraining his ankle in Game 3 of the Rockets’ first-round series with the Thunder. After averaging 38.7 points on 47 percent shooting in the first three games of the playoffs, he is averaging 20.8 points on 31 percent in the past four. There’s not much rest for the weary in the second round: Houston will not have more than one day off in the rest of the series until a potential two-day layoff between Games 6 and 7. They are just going to have to hope that home cooking will improve Harden’s health. He will almost certainly get more calls at the Toyota Center, and even a bum ankle won’t prevent him from knocking down free throws.

All Eyes on Trevor Ariza

From a statistical standpoint, the biggest difference between the Rockets offensive performances in Games 1 and 2 was the play of Ariza. It didn’t seem like the Spurs changed their defensive strategy that much against Ariza. He just didn’t make as many shots and wasn’t as effective when he drove the ball.

Game 1: 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting

Game 2: two points on 1-of-5 shooting

Ariza is the second-most-important player for the Rockets in this series. He’s their only player with even a prayer of guarding Kawhi, and he’s the guy the Spurs will leave open on the perimeter. They have been stashing their big men on Ariza, which has forced Houston to use him as the screener for Harden a lot more than it did in the regular season. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, 6.7 percent of Ariza’s offensive possessions came in the pick-and-roll in the regular season. That number has more than doubled to 16.4 percent in the playoffs. These are the shots that will be open for Ariza all series long:

If Harden can get back in an offensive groove in Games 3 and 4, San Antonio will likely trap him more aggressively and force the ball out of his hands on the pick-and-roll. That means Ariza will have to create shots out of four-on-three situations, whether it’s taking the ball to the paint and finishing at the rim or finding the open man when the defense collapses on him. The better Ariza plays on offense, the better Houston’s chances of winning the series.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the number of free throws James Harden took, and how he drew them, on Wednesday; he shot six free throws, after being fouled on two 3-point attempts.