How James Harden and the Rockets picked the Spurs apart in Game 1

May 1, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs power forward David Lee (10) during the first half in game one of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
May 1, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs power forward David Lee (10) during the first half in game one of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

The Rockets took an incredible number of 3-pointers in their Game 1 victory against the Spurs. 50, to be exact, of which they made 22. The latter was a postseason record for the franchise and it helped them pull off the second-largest road win in playoff history for any team. The volume of 3-pointers by the Rockets certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who followed them this season — this team shattered the NBA record for 3-point attempts after all — but the Spurs not having an answer for it should.

Not only were the Spurs the best defensive team in the NBA this season, they were one of the better teams at keeping opponents off the 3-point line. According to, they defended 23.7 3-point attempts per game, which was only slightly more than the Jazz (22.8) and Heat (22.6) at the bottom of the league. Furthermore, opponents shot 34.4 percent on contested 3-pointers against the Spurs compared to 35.6 percent on uncontested 3-pointers for a differential of -1.3 percent. That was also one of the lowest marks in the league, trailing only the Heat (-1.4 percent), Celtics (-2.3 percent) and Warriors (-3.0 percent).

Even so, as we learned in Game 1, the Spurs don’t exactly have a roster filled with defensive aces. As dominant as Leonard is on that end of the floor, he has to make it work with David Lee, Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, each of whom are known far more for their offensive contributions than their defensive contributions. Based on how easily the Rockets create open 3-pointers through James Harden pick-and-rolls, the Spurs will have a tough time keeping up with them as long as they stick with their usual two big lineups involving Lee, Gasol and Aldridge.

Read More: The Warriors have the perfect defense to contain Harden

We caught a first glimpse at why that’s the case within the opening minutes of the first quarter. Harden ran a pick-and-pop with Ryan Anderson, and Aldridge, who started the game defending Anderson, hedged to prevent Harden from turning the corner. While Harden didn’t attack himself, the slight delay paved the way for Anderson to free himself on the opposite wing for a deep 3-pointer. Clint Capela made things harder for Aldridge by setting a screen on him, meaning Aldridge had to hedge on Harden, fight through a screen from a center and contest a 3-pointer within three seconds. As much as he has improved on defense, that’s a tough ask for any power forward not named Draymond Green.

The Spurs caught a break when Anderson missed a 3-pointer the first time they ran that action…

…but Anderson made up for it three minutes later on a similar pick-and-pop…

…and followed it up with another 3-pointer shortly thereafter.

That’s why the matchup between Aldridge and Anderson could dictate the outcome of the series. If Anderson can continue to punish Aldridge in pick-and-pops like he did in Game 1, it will force the Spurs to downsize or switch matchups across the board. If Aldridge can contain Anderson in those situations and hurt him on the other end of the floor, it might force the Rockets to go bigger, which would work in the Spurs’ favor. Unfortunately for the Spurs, Aldridge wasn’t able to take advantage of his matchup with Anderson in Game 1.

Switching probably isn’t the solution for the Spurs, either. Harden is averaging 1.15 points per isolation possession in the playoffs and he led the NBA in isolation scoring during the regular season. Aldridge has improved guarding perimeter players on switches, but it’s once again a troublesome matchup for any power forward not named Green.

The Spurs responded by having Leonard guard Anderson at times in Game 1. While it allows them to switch any pick-and-pop involving Harden and Anderson, the Rockets are too smart to not take advantage of other matchups on the court. It goes back to the idea of Leonard being so good on defense that it hurts the Spurs. With Leonard guarding Anderson, it means someone less capable like Lee has to pick up Trevor Ariza. And with Lee guarding Ariza, the Rockets can put Lee in the difficult position of having to decide between helping out on the roller and sticking to his assignment.

Lee opts for the former on this possession and it leads to an open 3-pointer for Ariza:

You can see it again on the following possession, only with a slightly different result: Harden loses Lee and Green by faking a hand-off with Ariza on the wing and draws Leonard into the paint from the weakside. Eric Gordon doesn’t make the 3-pointer, but it’s a wide open 3-pointer from one of the best shooters in the NBA. It’s the sort of shot Mike D’Antoni’s system is built on.

The same goes for when Aldridge guards Ariza instead of Lee. Harden can put Lee in a pick-and-roll with Capela and force Aldridge to make the same pick-your-poison decision on the weakside. Take one step too far and Harden will rifle a pass to the open shooter for a rhythm jumper.

Let them play 2-on-2, though, and Harden will create a shot for himself or drop a pass off Capela for a dunk.

There were some 3-pointers the Rockets hit in Game 1 that the best defenses and defenders can’t contain, Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley pull-up 3-pointers in transition probably being the best examples. The Rockets also hit 54.8 percent of their contested shots compared to 37.8 percent of their uncontested shots, according to, which is highly unusual and more than likely unsustainable. That should give the Spurs some confidence heading into Game 2 knowing they were on the receiving end of an otherworldly shooting performance from the Rockets.

Next: Can JaVale McGee really be the Warriors’ secret weapon?

However, the Rockets created 3-pointers far too easily in Game 1 against a team that didn’t look athletic enough to keep up with them. It’s never wise to count out Gregg Popovich and the Spurs — they will have a game plan in Game 2 to make those looks a little harder — but Game 1 felt eerily similar to last season’s series between the Thunder and Spurs. Let’s see if they can bounce back in Game 2 and prove everyone wrong.