Considering the offseason the Houston Rockets had, the San Antonio Spurs will have their hands full more than usual in matchups with their Southwest Division rival this season. In one of the craziest summers the Western Conference has ever seen, the Rockets were right in the thick of it, making one of the biggest moves in the franchise’s history.
With Wednesday’s preseason matchup looming, let’s take a closer look at what to expect in the I-10 rivalry this season.
What the Houston Rockets Did Over the Summer
The Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey certainly wasn’t messing around this summer. Not only did he add Thabo Sefolosha and Tyson Chandler to provide veteran leadership, but he also traded for one former NBA MVP to join another former MVP in their backcourt.
The acquisition of Russell Westbrook adds a new dynamic to what was already a dynamic Rockets team. Two of the Rockets’ biggest weaknesses last season were defensive rebounding and slow pace of play, and Westbrook addresses both of those issues. The eight-time All-Star has averaged over eight defensive rebounds per game in each of the last three seasons.
Regarding his pace of play, well, Spurs fans are familiar with seeing Westbrook fly up and down the court, pushing the ball as often as possible. His frenetic, sometimes out-of-control pace can be both good and bad for the Rockets, however.
The additions of Chandler and Sefolosha shouldn’t be overlooked either. Again, one reason the Rockets couldn’t get it done last season was their lack of rebounding by anyone not named Clint Capela. The 7-foot-1 Chandler has averaged 9.2 rebounds per game over his career and is a menace on the offensive glass. Sefolosha has always been a solid perimeter defender, and in today’s guard-heavy game, you can never have too many of those.
Spurs and Rockets: Preseason Performances
Let’s face it: The Spurs have had an awful preseason so far. After losing to the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic in blowouts, it looked like Gregg Popovich’s club finally found some momentum on Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Unfortunately, even after establishing a 17-point lead, the Spurs allowed Zion Williamson and company to come all the way back and claim a nine-point victory. Granted, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay both rested for the matchup with New Orleans, however squandering big leads like that is always discouraging.
Rebounding problems, shooting woes and a lack of intensity have all been bad habits the Spurs have displayed through the first three games. The last one has been the most disturbing of all. It’s rare to see a coach call out their team in the preseason, yet it happened after Coach Popovich witnessed what he called a soft performance in Miami.
Personally, I’m in the camp that doesn’t care much about preseason records. Would I like to see a couple of victories for the Spurs to gain momentum going into the regular season? Of course. But the preseason is all about establishing your rotations and seeing who deserves a look at earning more playing time. DeMarre Carroll and Bryn Forbes have at least had strong preseasons so far, so that’s something.
The Houston Rockets, meanwhile, have gone 3-1 in their preseason, although one of those wins was against the Shanghai Sharks of the CBA. Still, averaging 125 points a game over four games is no small feat.
Harden and Westbrook have played well together so far, and the Rockets’ have had many standout performances from their supporting cast as well as players hoping to make the team. Veteran shooting guard Ben McLemore has had an impressive preseason, but an unexpected name to look out for on Wednesday is Chris Clemons.
Clemons is a 5-foot-9 point guard that has reminded me of Nate Robinson with a three-point shot at times. Considering he joined the team as an undrafted Summer League prospect, he just might be the Rockets’ version of Jonathon Simmons.
What to Expect in the Spurs vs. Rockets Matchup
On paper, the Houston Rockets should have an edge against the Spurs this season. They have explosive athletes, tremendous shooters, talented centers and, of course, the first-ever backcourt made up of two former MVPs. Talent-wise, Clutch City should probably be a top-four pick to win the NBA title.
The thing is, Mike D’Antoni has had supremely talented rosters before, namely the 2005 and 2007 Phoenix Suns, the 2013 Los Angeles Lakers and the 2017 Rockets. Each time, though, D’Antoni’s team lost to the Spurs in the playoffs.
Popovich seems to have D’Antoni’s number no matter what team he’s coaching at the time. Time will tell if this season will be any different, but it’s tough to discount the huge head-to-head advantage Pop has over D’Antoni.
Defensively, San Antonio must limit contributions from anyone not named Russell or James as much as possible to have a decent chance. The Spurs have employed this strategy countless times in the past, notably with Westbrook and Kevin Durant in their OKC days. Still, the Houston duo is talented enough to carry a team to victory on their own.
Dejounte Murray will be heavily relied on to keep Westbrook off the glass as much as possible and limit his drives to the basket. The key to limiting Westbrook’s effectiveness is to simply back up and let him fill up on outside shots. For a guy who shot a measly 29% from beyond the arc last season, he is continuing to jack them up in the preseason to little success.
Offensively, the Spurs will need to punish the Rockets inside as much as possible. D’Antoni has always had a desire to play small ball and has already stated that it will often be his strategy this season. LaMarcus Aldridge will need to have a big game every time the Texas showdown takes place to give San Antonio a decent chance.
The Rockets have led the league in 3-point attempts for the last three seasons by far, so I would expect nothing different on Wednesday and every game going forward. The Spurs have a much more inside-out approach, however, they may need to shoot more from the outside just to keep up with the eager Houston offense.
If Popovich plays all available personnel on Wednesday, I would expect a tight ballgame, as Spurs and Rockets games always seem to be. Given that Mike D’Antoni has already been playing Harden heavy minutes even in the preseason and Popovich is more conservative with his stars’ preseason minutes, I could see San Antonio dropping to 0-4.
As far as the regular season is concerned, I lean towards a 2-2 split with each team winning once on the road.
The I-10 rivalry is sure to have fireworks this season, and it all starts with a preseason faceoff on Wednesday at 7 p.m. CT.