Even though we love to focus on the “power struggles” between James Harden hero ball and Jeremy Lin-style basketball, the 104-98 win for the Houston Rockets over the San Antonio Spurs was mostly about Dwight Howard and the front court dominating to complete a four-game sweep in the regular season over the team with the best record in the NBA.
The Spurs are resting some players, but didn’t send out everyone. Tim Duncan started and so did Tony Parker while Manu Ginobili played off the bench. However, players more important to the defensive effort like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter didn’t play, which made things easier for the Rockets, dominating the paint with Howard, Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, who seemed to make all the difference both and off the court.
Because when the trio was resting in one combination or another, the Spurs had their chance of coming back. Boris Diaw had some very good minutes off the bench, usually playing while Omer Asik and Donatas Motiejunas were on the floor. Even though Asik has defensive influence, there’s a huge difference between playing him and Dwight Howard. The return of him and Patrick Beverley makes the Rockets a contender again, even though there are other kinks to work out.
The Rockets finally clinched the home court advantage in the first round, in which they’ll face the Portland Trail Blazers. After that, if they pass? Probably the Spurs, although no one thinks the Spurs are going to be as easy as they were during the regular season. The Rockets, however, do pose a few problems for San Antonio, even in their best of lineups which includes Leonard and Green.
The problem here is James Harden, even though he wasn’t having a very good game. He did score 16 points but on an awful 4-of-16 from the field. Danny Green is a very good defender, but he isn’t strong enough to keep Harden from pushing into the paint, which creates problems for a lot of teams around the league. Maybe Leonard guarding Harden will be more effective for them, but it’ll mean the Rockets can overturn that by playing smarter basketball.
What is smarter basketball? Playing on Dwight Howard is always a good option. Tim Duncan can’t handle him on his own (Splitter didn’t play this time), which helped both Howard get to his 20 points and free up Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, scoring 21 and 20 respectively. Houston can be a great team to watch when the ball moves, but as we’ve all seen this season, it tends to get stuck in the same hands for too long in each possession.
As we talked about McHale and his treatment of Lin, a strong game from the backup point guard didn’t win him any minutes in the game against the Spurs. He played for only 19 minutes to finish with 5 points and four assists. Smarter basketball also means more minutes for Lin and not in a three guard set that includes Parsons and Harden together, making it almost impossible to defend well despite the presence of Beverley and Howard.
The Rockets slightly underachieved this season considering the talent at their disposal, but no one is complaining about another step forward, at least in the regular season. McHale hasn’t done much but letting Harden run wild which is always has an unexpected entity to it., but he is taking the Rockets to the postseason for a second straight year, although this time not making it past the first round will be a lot harder to explain.