The Spurs Got Moneyballed Monday Night

If you missed the Spurs’ abysmal Game 1 performance versus the Rockets, or are still trying to make sense of how a 61-win team could fall behind by as many as 36 points at home, a helpful place to start is math.

Not the kind that dictates that 126 points (Houston’s score) is greater than 99 (San Antonio’s), but rather the unwavering, numbers-driven methodology behind how the Rockets approach every matchup. The same kind the Spurs ignored.

Over the years, no team has been more influenced by advanced statistics and analytics than Houston, and you see it in how they have constructed their roster and how they apply it to strategy. Their roster is filled with outside shooters and guys who can finish at the rim because, statistically speaking, the most efficient shots a team can take are either right at the basket (due to their high probability of going in) or behind the three-point line (three points are more than two). It’s an economist’s approach to the sport that some call “Moreyball”, named after Houston’s general manager, Daryl Morey.

This is all common knowledge around the NBA at this point, and most teams have embraced it one way or another. In the 2016-17 season, the league saw its highest amount of three-pointers made in its history, but it was the Rockets who were still ahead of the pack, breaking the record for most threes ever in a season.

The Rockets’ brilliance, though, is how they marry science with art, primarily creating these opportunities through the playmaking of James Harden. With the ball in his hands, Harden presents defenses with an unpleasant set of binary situations. Play a pick and roll too closely, and he’ll drive at the basket or draw a foul on you; go under a screen and allow him to take the open shot; bring help from another defender and he’ll swing the ball around to a teammate spotting up for three.

It’s a brutally simple system that requires opposing teams to either adjust to their lineup or seek out advantages on the other end. The Spurs did neither.

For most of Game 1, the Rockets spread the Spurs out and let Harden go to work, either one on one or in the pick and roll. They used center Clint Capela (guarded by David Lee to begin the game) to set screens, and pulled LaMarcus Aldridge out to the three-point line to defend bomber Ryan Anderson.

Whenever given the chance, Houston pushed the tempo, especially when the 36-year-old Pau Gasol was on the floor trying to keep up with the faster Rockets centers. It was the perfect way to exploit the Spurs’ plodding, two-big-man lineup, and Gregg Popovich didn’t adjust, deciding only to play the sprier Dewayne Dedmon when the game was out of reach.

Playing two traditional big men against Houston is fine – if you exploit it on the other end. But Aldridge was unable to do so against the smaller Anderson, and the Spurs rarely won the battle in the paint, often settling for contested two-point jumpers.

It certainly didn’t help that the Rockets caught fire early in this one and didn’t let up. They took a ridiculous 50 three-pointers last night (a high number, even for them) and made a franchise-playoff-record 22. That’s 44 percent shooting, a huge improvement over the 29 percent they shot against the Spurs in the regular season.

And maybe San Antonio’s regular season success against Houston (they won three of the four very close contests) is what hurt them last night. Or maybe it was that the same lineup they rolled out against the Rockets is what worked against the Grizzlies in the last series, with Lee starting over Dedmon. It doesn’t look like a similar gameplan will work this time around, leaving the ball in Pop’s corner to adjust ahead of Wednesday's crucial Game 2.

The Spurs have the talent and roster to compete with the Rockets and still win this series. But they need to make the numbers work in their favor, one way or another.
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