COMMENTARY | As we inch closer to the beginning of the regular season, the playoffs are the least of the players' worries.
The Houston Rockets head into training camp with two starting spots up for grabs (although Jeremy Lin will likely start, I'd like to think coach Kevin McHale will at least give Patrick Beverley a shot), a logjam at nearly every bench position, a new half-court offense that needs to constructed and learned, and a lot of work on the defensive end.
Those are the behind-the-scenes concerns, but as fans, we know that this team is headed to the playoffs, and we are excited to see them make a run at the Western Conference crown. In the next couple of weeks, I'll be exploring how the Rockets match up with all of their Western Conference foes.
Next up, the seemingly-ageless and hopefully-dispirited San Antonio Spurs:
Rotational Role Players
SG Marco Belinelli, Combo Guard Nando De Colo, PF/C Boris Diaw, PG Cory Joseph
Fringe Rotational Players and Bench Bodies
PF/C Jeff Ayres (the artist formerly known as Pendergraph), PF/C Matt Bonner, PG Patty Mills, Aron Baynes
Last Season's Results
12/7/12: Spurs Tear Apart Rockets, 114-92
12/10/12: Lin Drops 38, Harden-Less Rockets Lose in Overtime
12/28/12: Harden, Lin and Parsons Combine for 78 Points, Spurs Squeak By Rockets
3/24/13: Harden Nails Game-Winning Shot, Rockets Avoid Season-Series Sweep
Houston's Defensive Strategy
- Make the right guys beat you. When the Spurs are at their best, Parker is controlling the ball, and seamlessly getting the Spurs in and out of their half-court sets. The Spurs are the kings at making the right play, so all the Rockets can do is close out on shooters under the control, keep Parker from penetrating in the middle of the court, and hope that they miss a few shots.
- Take advantage of Splitter's inability to shoot with range, don't help off Green or Belinelli, and let Splitter's man provide the help defense.
- Keep them out of transition. Duncan is the best in the business at throwing quick and accurate outlet passes, a forgotten skill in today's NBA. If you can limit their transition baskets, especially transition three-point shots, you're at an advantage.
Houston's Offensive Strategy
- Dwight Howard will have trouble posting inside on Duncan, but with Duncan playing Howard, that leaves Splitter on Houston's 4. McHale needs to make sure that Terrence Jones and/or Donatas Motiejunas get touches on the perimeter against the slow-footed Splitter, especially Jones. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will likely counter with the more agile Diaw, but the idea is that you're making Popovich alter his gameplan to match up better defensively.
- Duncan and Splitter aren't the fleetest of foot, so Harden should be able to get a rhythm going in the high pick-and-roll game. San Antonio's defense is predicated upon denying middle penetration, so allowing Harden to run the pick and roll from the top of the key could be a way to break through the Spurs' defense.
- San Antonio's second unit is considerably less talented than it used to be, and Houston needs to make them pay. Use Lin to attack with the second unit, and push the ball. Attack Ginobili and Belinelli in the half-court offense. This could be a perfect opportunity for Omri Casspi or Reggie Williams to shine on the offensive end.
Biggest Mismatch: Tiago Splitter vs. Terrence Jones
Marcus Morris was a key stretch-4 for the Rockets last season, and it was obvious that his success was strictly due to the Rockets' offensive system (he barely got on the court for the lowly Phoenix Suns after getting dealt for for the pick that turned into Isaiah Canaan). In his second season, the athletically-gifted Jones should be able to make teams pay for having slow interior defenders. Jones is a team-first guy, but in this specific matchup, he should be able to dominate Splitter one on one. Get Jones in isolation situations early and often, and let him beat the Brazilian big man down the floor for easy transition buckets (Splitter spends ample time on the offensive end under the basket, which should make it easy for Jones to beat him down the floor). Popovich is a great coach and he'll adjust to the mismatch, but it's always an advantage to get an opposing coach to change his lineups strictly for defensive purposes (similar to the Golden State Warriors forcing the first-seeded Dallas Mavericks to shift to a smaller lineup in the 2007, when Don Nelson's Warriors pulled off the greatest first-round upset ever).
Most Interesting Matchup(s): Chandler Parsons vs. Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan vs. Dwight Howard
Although Leonard will probably see a lot of minutes playing Harden on the defensive end (it's either him or Green, but it'll probably be a little bit of both), the matchup of these two third-year small forwards will be fun to watch. Both Parsons and Leonard are in position to make names for themselves as two of the better small forwards in the game (in the notch below the Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant and the Miami Heat's LeBron James), and the two have a number of similarities on the court. In the other matchup, you have the best power forward of all time playing the best center in the NBA; can't really go wrong with that, right? Hopefully, Howard will be flaunting an improved and less-robotic-looking post game after hanging with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer. Even on an opposing rival, you have to respect Duncan's ability to not just compete, but to outperform almost everyone he plays against. Watching the quiet, unassuming Duncan bang inside against the bratty Howard will be worth watching for Los Angeles Lakers fans, too (it could be either really awesome to watch Duncan out-duel him, or really depressing to watch Howard play like he wants to be there; either way, it's worth checking out).
This is going to be a matchup to keep track of all season. Are the aging Spurs going to start looking older, slower, and less lethal, or are Splitter, Green and Leonard ready to take on bigger roles? Are the Rockets ready to take the Western Conference by storm, or are they going to look like a disjointed collection of talent that still doesn't play defense? If you put a gun to my head and asked me who has a better chance to win a title this season, I'd say Houston (shocker, right?). I don't think San Antonio would have won the Western Conference last season if Russell Westbrook didn't get hurt, and although the Spurs came so close to winning it all, I don't think they have another run in them this season. Ginobili is heading into the non-factor category, Duncan is aging (at least he's supposed to be), and they have significantly less depth. Houston has superfluous depth, a huge trade asset in Omer Asik, two legitimate stars in Harden and Howard, and a number of great complementary pieces (which includes young guys ready to break out in Jones, Motiejunas and Beverley). San Antonio has the experience, but Houston has more talent. If you're a Spurs fan, you're laughing right now (and rightfully so), but if you're a Rockets fan, you know where I'm coming from.
2013-14 Regular Season Dates
Road: Nov. 30, Christmas Day (ESPN)
Home: Jan. 28, April 14 (NBATV, second to last game of the regular season)
(Preseason: Oct. 24, Houston @ San Antonio on TNT)
Other Matchup Previews
M. De Moor is an NBA junkie and a general columnist on Hoopshabit.com. He has followed the Rockets from the championship days of Hakeem Olajuwon, to the years of Francis and Mobley, to the McGrady and Yao era, and will continue to follow them through Harden and Dwight's reign of destruction.
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