Lone Star State teams are set to square off in the playoffs as Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs take on James Harden and the Rockets
It’s an NBA Texas Two-Step in one half of the Western Conference bracket as I-10 rivals Houston and San Antonio square off in yet another juicy second round series.
A lot was made about James Harden battling fellow MVP candidate Russell Westbrook in the last round but there is no rest for the weary as he goes up against another one in the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard. Each player’s transformation the past few years has been a joy for most to watch and now we’ll get to see them both go right at their opposite number on both ends of the court. All things considered, this has the feel of a conference finals matchup of heavyweights — albeit a tad earlier than normal thanks to all that depth in the West.
So buckle up and get ready for some free-flowing ball movement, plenty of stellar three-point shooting and a handful of huge defensive stops. Each fan base is fiercely protective of their team and it should all make for one fantastic series down in the Lone Star State.
No. 3 Houston Rockets (55-27) vs. No. 2 San Antonio Spurs (61-21)
Game 1 - Monday, May 1, 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 2 - Wednesday, May 3, 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3 - Friday, May 5, 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4 - Sunday, May 7, 9 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary) - Tuesday, May 9, time TBD (TNT)
Game 6 (if necessary) - Thursday, May 11, time TBD (ESPN)
Game 7 (if necessary) - Sunday, May 14, TBD
Note: Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will take place at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, while Games 3, 4, 6 will be at the Toyota Center in Houston.
Keys for Houston
There’s no doubt about it that MVP favorite James Harden is the focal point for the Rockets. While he’s always been a big-time scorer, he’s really rounded out his game by making big leaps in the assist department and pulling down boards. If he’s hot, Houston will certainly be able to make this a fun series over the course of the next few weeks. He’ll need some help though and whether it’s Trevor Ariza from outside or Clint Capela in the lane, a reliable second option on both ends of the court is a must for a team that lives in transition.
Keys for San Antonio
Kawhi. Kawhi. Kawhi. We know he was already one of the best players in the league coming into the playoffs but this postseason has given us additional evidence that he’s right at the top of the list of best two-way players in basketball. Defensively he’ll not surprisingly be huge in helping Danny Green slow down James Harden. Offensively, Leonard really flourished in the Spurs’ first-round triumph over the Grizzlies and his game has developed everywhere from the lane to the three-point line. As much as San Antonio’s star player will be the focus in this one, over the course of five, six or seven games, getting the team’s veterans like Tony Parker going will be a big factor in moving on to the next round.
When you think of NBA rivalries, there are a handful of ones that jump into your mind. You might have to go down the list a bit if you’re from outside Texas but the Rockets and Spurs have been going at each other for decades and this year represents yet another fierce battle between the two franchises. The days of Olajuwon, Drexler, Robinson and Duncan are over however and now it’s time for James Harden and Kawhi Leonard to take center stage for the two teams in the postseason.
The Spurs won the season series but even more pressure will be on them given the stresses that the Rockets’ three-point shooting puts on a team defensively during a playoff run. San Antonio gave up a few easy looks from downtown in its series with the Grizzlies and it’s safe to say that the Spurs’ second-round opponent is not only more talented, but also far more accurate beyond the arc. Harden will be the focus in that area but he’s far from the only threat on the team given all of the different looks they can trot out onto the floor.
That said, San Antonio has the edge in numerous areas and Gregg Popovich is no stranger to beating Mike D’Antoni in big moments. Leonard will need to continue to be a superstar on both ends of the court to get the series win but, in the end, that’s exactly what happens.
Prediction: Spurs in six
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)