Perhaps the most memorable playoff series in Rockets history was against the Spurs in 1995 when Hakeem Olajuwon absolutely dismantled MVP David Robinson en route to Houston's second straight title. But that would be at the end of a run for Houston and just the start of one for the Spurs, who have become the gold standard of NBA franchises. When you consider the battles the Rockets and Spurs have had over the years, it's remarkable to think that Spurs all-time great Tim Duncan never faced the Rockets in the playoffs. But that's what happens when one team is consistently great and another was already on the downward slide to NBA purgatory when Duncan entered the league.
Now, 22 years after that Western Conference Finals game, the I-10 rivalry is back, with the division and state rivals finishing second and third in the conference, both with dynamic MVP candidates and veteran coaches, but radically divergent styles.
This year, it's more likely to be the team that is able to impose its personality on the other that moves on.
Scoring from distance.
No team was more prolific this year, or ANY year, from beyond the arc than the Houston Rockets. Despite a down series from three against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets will need to bounce back if they are going to compete with the Spurs. San Antonio excels at defending the perimeter, so something's going to have to give. The Rockets may have been able to close out OKC even with a poor shooting series, but they cannot expect the same against the crafty Spurs.
Both benches have had success all year, but the Rockets boast two of the Sixth Man of the Year candidates in Eric Gordon and Lou Williams. They also have found life in a resurgent Nenê, giving them the ability to keep the pressure on, particularly offensively, even when James Harden is on the bench. The Spurs have veterans Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobili, plus pesky guard Patty Mills. This is one area in which the Rockets could excel.
Locking down the perimeter.
Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green are two of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. They are tough, athletic and can shut down nearly any player. Harden has had some struggles against Leonard at times (more on that in a moment), but he'll likely see more of Green. If Leonard is on Ariza, that is a plus for the Rockets who can isolate other guys around the perimeter on lesser defenders. Still, as good as the Spurs are on the outside, it won't make getting good shots easy.
Harden vs. Leonard
This is the premier matchup of the playoffs thus far. Sure, there was Harden v. Westbrook, but they rarely went one-on-one. Leonard, who has become such an important part of the Spurs offense, won't take Harden full time, but he will D him up in critical moments. "The Claw" versus "The Beard" is likely to be one of the best matchups the league has seen all season. It will be up to Harden to rise to the occasion and prove he is worthy of all the MVP run he has gotten.
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Running and gunning.
Age may be at least somewhat of a factor in this series. Tony Parker, Ginobili and Gasol aren't exactly rookies, and Parker has seemed to run out of gas the last couple of playoff runs. If the Rockets are going to take advantage, they must wear the Spurs down and force their game on them. They are at their best when they are sprinting and spotting up from three. They have got to push their game on the Spurs and try to wear them down to be successful.
This promises to be an exciting series. Neither team would appear to have the matchup advantage and while the Rockets present far less of a defensive challenge to the Spurs than the Grizzlies, they are going to run them ragged offensively. Conversely, the Spurs defense will make getting into that offense tough. This is the type of series that could go the distance and will likely be decided by narrow margins, so take your heart meds.
Prediction: Spurs in 7