The presumptive-favorite status of the Cavs and Warriors has, in recent seasons, dulled some of the shine of playoff matchups involving other teams. You can get only so excited about, say, Raptors-Pacers knowing they're just playing for the right to get stomped by LeBron in a couple weeks, and even last year's excellent Oklahoma City-San Antonio showdown had the feel of a preamble to the Western Conference Finals. 2017 is no different; barring a revised prognosis for Kevin Durant, Golden State and Cleveland remain the teams to watch, and the most important series will, by definition, be the ones they're playing in.
That said: holy cow, would a Rockets-Spurs conference semifinal ever be great. The teams met Monday night in San Antonio and reminded everyone just what makes the intrastate rivalry so compelling. The Spurs eked out a two-point win, but the outcome was far less interesting than how the two teams got there. It was a collision of near-opposite basketball ideologies, each realized at an expert level, each questioned and lifted by its antithesis.
Part of what defines these teams is the versatility of their rosters—almost every Rocket can hit a three; almost every Spur can bust up a pick-and-roll—but for our purposes the stars serve as fine stand-ins. Houston gets its juice from James Harden, the genius who, with a skip pass or shoulder shimmy, can reduce the most sophisticated defense to the mark in a fixed game. The Spurs fall in line behind Kawhi Leonard, who if he saw an asteroid heading for Earth would try to box it out (and probably succeed). One player—and, by extension, his team—wants to make the opponent dizzy; the other wants to grind it down.
On Monday, Harden and Leonard both went for 39, in their expected ways. Harden tiptoed and crossed over and pulled up for threes; he sent passes to every quadrant of the court without turning his head or even lifting his eyelids. Leonard shouldered toughly through double-teams, grabbed tough rebounds, and hit tough leaners. Leonard guarded Harden; Harden didn't guard Leonard. It was all perfect.
It ended perfectly, too. With about 25 seconds remaining, Kawhi gave San Antonio a two-point lead on a dagger three. On the ensuing possession, Leonard got screened at the top of the key, and Harden glided to the rim. Against maybe any other team in the NBA, the sequence would've produced one of the shots Houston loves, a layup or a corner three. Leonard, though, chased the play down, smacked Harden's shot attempt against the backboard, and suctioned up the rebound. Some officializing was still left to do—including a weird final-second sequence when the Rockets couldn't get off an intentional foul—but the block was crescendo and summary, the night's lasting image. It set Gregg Popovich to gushing. "I don't know who goes to the other end and does what [Leonard] does—not that many people on a consistent basis, and entire game, game after game."
But it wasn't proof of superiority. The regular-season series between Houston and San Antonio is now over, with the Spurs having won three of four meetings, but the total difference between the teams was a mere eight points. They both have reasons to be confident against each other and reasons to worry. Here's hoping we get to see them play six or seven more in May: two weeks of Mike D'Antoni smirking, Popovich scowling, the Rockets bombing away, the Spurs tunneling in, and two of the best players alive swapping brilliances. It would be hoops heaven, and the Warriors, if it comes to pass, can just wait.