SAN ANTONIO -- There will be a lot more on the line than pride and Lone Star State bragging rights when the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets meet for Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series on Monday at the AT&T Center.
The heated rivalry featured four meetings this season, and the Spurs won the final three by a combined 10 points. Two of San Antonio's victories in the series came in Houston, and three of the four games were decided by just two points.
The second-seeded Spurs advanced out of the first round by outlasting the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in a bruising six-game series.
Meanwhile, the third-seeded Rockets captured their first-round series against the sixth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in five games, with the clinching game a 105-99 victory on Tuesday in Houston.
San Antonio won the deciding Game 6 against Memphis 103-96 on Thursday despite being down by six points midway through the fourth quarter.
MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard, who scored eight consecutive points to propel the Spurs into the lead, had 29 in the game and averaged 31 points in the series. He had three games of 30 or more points, including a 43-point effort in a Game 2 victory in San Antonio.
"Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's the best two-way player and does it all with such class. It's impressive."
Tony Parker, San Antonio's venerable but rejuvenated point guard, added a series-high 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting in the final win against Memphis, which, as expected, was tough as nails.
"When you're in a position to close out a team, you have to do whatever it takes," Spurs center Pau Gasol said. "If you give them rhythm, give them confidence, then things can change. You want to try to go after the first opportunity, and that was Game 6. We understand how hard that is, but our mindset was to be aggressive."
In the Rockets' decisive Game 5, Houston guard James Harden overcame another poor shooting performance from the floor (8 of 25) and finished with a team-high 34 points. He was 16 of 17 from the free-throw line. Reserve guard Lou Williams totaled 22 points, while Patrick Beverley added 15 points and eight rebounds. Eric Gordon and Nene combined for 22 points off the bench as the Houston bench posted a 44-22 advantage.
"This team is improving throughout the postseason," Beverley said. "Our defense is kind of setting a tone. Last game, we kept an explosive team under 100 points. That always puts us in position to win basketball games. If you think about our defense, being where it is now, and our offense when it comes, the sky's the limit with this team.
"Attention to detail is critical, especially in the playoffs. Guys are locked in -- we're doing it together."
One of the keys to the Houston-San Antonio series will be the pace the Rockets are allowed to forge. The Spurs will make Houston work for everything it gets with their stifling defense, but if the Rockets can steal some possessions -- and make shots -- they can beat San Antonio.
"We have to really push the pace to see if we can get some open shots -- we have to play faster," Gordon said.
The Spurs and Rockets will meet in the playoffs for the fourth time. Houston won the three other postseason series -- most recently a six-game advancement in the 1995 Western Conference finals.