Playoffs 2017: West Semifinals -- Spurs (2) vs. Rockets (3)

Series preview: San Antonio Spurs' system takes on Houston Rockets' wild pace

MVP candidates in Houston (James Harden) and San Antonio (Kawhi Leonard) square off

Despite being separated by just a 200-mile ribbon of I-10, the Texas neighbors have met only three times in the playoffs and never once during Tim Duncan’s long career.

The Rockets won a first-round mini-series battle when the two teams were in the Eastern Conference. The following season, they had switched to the Western Conference and the Rockets won an epic seven-gamer. The last meeting was 1995, when the Clutch City Rockets of Hakeem Olajuwon took down David Robinson in and the No. 1-seeded Spurs in the Western Conference finals.

This showdown has been in the making since the Rockets went on a 20-2 tear from Dec. 1 through Jan. 10 to tuck in neatly as the No. 3 team in the West behind the front-running Warriors and Spurs.

The Rockets took down Russell Westbrook and the Thunder in the first round despite James Harden struggling to find his shot and making just 12-for-50 on 3-pointers. They attacked the hoop and played solid fourth quarter defense.

The Spurs survived a six-game slog against the physical Grizzlies.

The Spurs won the regular season series 3-1, but the wins were by two, two and six points. The Rockets won by two in San Antonio. This promises to be a doozy.

3 quick questions and answers

Who slows down Harden? The short answer is nobody. He averaged nearly a triple-double — 29.8 points, 12.5 assists and nine rebounds — against the Spurs this season. Danny Green will get the assignment to start, but when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter, Kawhi Leonard, the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, will demand the assignment.

Can Kawhi Leonard steal the election? Well, all the MVP ballots have been cast, but the Spurs’ two-way monster could give a lot of folks voter’s remorse if he can take down The Beard one round after the Rockets eliminated Russell Westbrook. The San Antonio system is not made for individual stars to shine, but he’s likely to do it anyway.

Who could tip the series? Look for veterans. If 34-year-old veteran Tony Parker can stay healthy and keep pressure on the Houston defense by attacking the basket, he can create open shots for his teammates and make the Spurs offense tough to slow down. On the other side, 34-year-old Nene has come off the bench all season to be a bludgeoning inside force that makes defenses pay on the nights when the 3-pointers aren’t falling. He’s a potential game-changer.

The number to know

57.2 — In regard to the shots they take, the Spurs are the anti-Rockets. In the first round vs. Memphis, San Antonio took only 57.2 percent of its shots from the restricted area (26.1 percent) or 3-point range (31.1 percent), the lowest rate in the playoffs thus far. The shots in between are the least efficient shots on the floor, but the Spurs have been able to build an strong offense around them. In fact, they scored 116.8 points per 100 possessions against Memphis, the highest rate in the first round and 12.3 more than the 7th-ranked Grizzlies defense allowed in the regular season. Kawhi Leonard shot 57 percent between the restricted area and the 3-point line, and the Spurs were also above average in regard to turnover rate, free throw rate and offensive rebounding percentage. In the regular season, the 18th-ranked Houston defense allowed its opponents to shoot just 38.6 percent in between the restricted area and 3-point range. Only Golden State (38.3 percent) was better in that regard. — John Schuhmann

Making the pick

Every game they played this season came down to the final minute and was decided by one or two possessions. The Spurs will close out on 3s and make the Rockets earn their points by going to the basket. Houston is a classic dark horse with a chip on the shoulder and absolutely no fear with so many offensive weapons. In a close match-up go with the defense and the Spurs had the No. 1 rating in the league all season. Spurs in 7.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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