Can Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets overcome Greg Popovich’s Spurs?

I am a strong believer that the best team with the best player wins in a playoff series. There are always exceptions, but more often than not the team with the best players win a playoff series. Coaching matters, but not as much as talent. This is why in our series preview that I picked the Rockets over the Spurs in the second round. Not because I think James Harden is better than Kawhi Leonard, but because the rest of the team is better than the Spurs. There is a good chance, however, that I am wrong.

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This will be the fifth time that Mike D’Antoni and Greg Popovich have coached against each other in a playoff series. Poppovich’s Spurs are 16-4 against D’Antoni’s teams. We’ll throw out the four game sweep when D’Antoni coached the Lakers because that team was a mess and it wasn’t really a D’Antoni system team. Still, 12-4 is not a good look and doesn’t bode well for this series. Why? Well, these two teams are both system teams. James Harden is the evolutionary Steve Nash of D’Antoni’s Suns teams and Popovich’s teams always play the same brand of defense-first team basketball. Look at how these teams compare statistically to the past match-ups.

 2005 Suns Spurs
Offensive Rating:  111.9 (1st) 104.9 (8th)
Defensive Rating:  103.7 (16th) 95.8 (1st)
 2007 Suns Spurs
Offensive Rating:  111.4 (1st) 106.7 (5th)
Defensive Rating:  103.4 (13th) 97.4 (2nd)
 2008 Suns Spurs
Offensive Rating:  111.2 (1st) 104.7 (13th)
Defensive Rating  104.9 (16th) 99.5 (3rd)

An elite level offense with a middling defense against an above average offense with an elite defense. Defense beat offense in every series as the Spurs won every time.

Now, let’s take a look at the statistics for this series.

2017 Rockets Spurs
Offensive Rating:  111.8 (2nd) 108.8 (7th)
Defensive Rating:  106.4 (18th) 100.9 (1st)

Once again, an elite level offense with a middling defense against an above average offense with an elite defense. The players have changed, the league has changed; but these two have remained the same. D’Antoni and Popovich do what they do and they are the very best at what they do.

Of course, you can say things like “well, there was that one series where Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw got suspended for leaving the bench” and that is very true. The Suns could’ve won that series if that didn’t happen, but they didn’t. The history books are written and those D’Antoni/Nash Suns teams never got past the Spurs. What makes you think that this series will be any different?

Kawhi Leonard will be guarding James Harden when it matters and that takes the Rockets offense from an elite level to an average level in a hurry. These two teams played each other three times in the regular season and the Spurs won three of those. Only once did the Rockets score more than 100 points. That is a huge win for the Spurs and a possible harbinger of things to come.

On paper, it’s easy to like the Rockets in this one. I like Clint Capela over Pau Gasol and Dewayne Dedmon. I like Patrick Beverley over Tony Parker and Patty Mills. I like Eric Gordon over Danny Green and Ryan Anderson might not be that far behind LaMarcus Aldridge based on the way he looked in round one. On paper, the Rockets just look better.

The Spurs have never been an on paper team though. They get things done and the whole is always better than the individual with this team. If the Spurs do what they’ve always done to D’Antoni teams and Kawhi takes care of Harden, it feels like we are finally going to see that Spurs-Warriors playoff match-up we have been waiting for.

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