SAN ANTONIO (AP) — After surviving an intense, physical battle with the Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs now face James Harden and the freewheeling Houston Rockets.
With a leading MVP candidate leading its offense in Harden, Houston averaged 112.8 points in its five-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Rockets attempted 169 3-pointers in that series, making 34 percent, and were 134 for 168 from the free throw line.
Led by their own MVP candidate in Kawhi Leonard and a resurgent Tony Parker, the Spurs will have to match Houston’s offensive output if they can’t contain the Rockets when the series tips off Monday night in San Antonio.
“We don’t want to, but I feel if we have to, I think we’re capable,” said Spurs guard Danny Green, who will be among those trying to slow Harden. “We have enough guys that can put the ball in the basket, especially at an up-and-down-pace type of game. I think most guys prefer it. I think they’ll give us an opportunity to score more, we’ve just got to take care of the ball.”
San Antonio has not faced Houston in the playoffs since the 1995 Western Conference finals, two seasons before the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan with the first overall pick. Still, the intra-state rivals are extremely familiar with each other.
San Antonio defeated Houston three times in the regular season, but the average margin of victory was three points in the four-game series.
“We know it’s going to be tough, an extremely tough series,” Harden said. “San Antonio isn’t going to beat themselves. So, we’ve got to be mentally focused and prepared to go out there and execute every possession, every game.”
Houston has capable outside shooters in Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson, Patrick Beverley, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams, but Harden is the focal point.
Harden averaged 29.8 points, 11.3 rebounds and 9.5 assists against the Spurs in four regular-season games. He had triple-doubles in the first two games and double-doubles in the final two meetings.
Green and Leonard will likely alternate defending Harden, but neither expects to do so alone.
“We have a great group of guys that have a mindset of guarding,” Leonard said. “One guy can’t guard someone one on one the whole game, it’s going to be a team effort.”
Leonard turned in one of his most memorable performances of the season against Houston in the team’s final meeting March 6. After hitting what became the game-winning 3-pointer with 25 seconds remaining, Leonard blocked Harden’s layup attempt to preserve a 112-110 victory.
The Spurs’ 6-foot-7 defensive anchor averaged 28.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists against the Rockets.
San Antonio will need is greater output from veterans Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge averaged 14.8 points against the Grizzlies, down from the 17.3 points he scored during the regular season.
Parker, the Spurs’ 16-year veteran point guard, was able to make up the difference by averaging 16.3 points and 3.0 assists against the Grizzlies. Parker averaged only 10.1 points during the regular season, the lowest output since his rookie season in 2002.
Some other things to know about the Rocket-Spurs matchup:
REMEMBER WHEN: Harden was on the winning end the only time he faced the Spurs in the playoffs. In his third season, Harden came off the bench as Oklahoma City beat San Antonio in six games to capture the 2012 Western Conference Finals. “He was tough,” Green said. “Especially with Russ (Westbrook) and K.D. (Kevin Durant). Him coming off the bench, he was kind of like their mediator, I would say, kind of controlled Russ and K.D. He came off the bench and kind of calmed them down a little bit controlled the tempo a little, changed it up a little bit.”
WELCOME BACK: Houston forward Sam Dekker will be available to play Monday after missing four weeks following surgery to repair a fractured left hand. Dekker averaged 6.8 points in four games against the Spurs this season.
LIVING OUT LOUD: The Rockets have not faced the Spurs in the postseason in more than two decades, but many of their players have. So, they know what to expect from the sold-out crowd at the AT&T Center. “It’s pretty loud in there,” Harden said. “Those fans are extremely loyal to their team and they’re going to be there cheering their team on to the highest level. So, we can’t let that affect us.”