Call Me Ishmael"..... "Hey Ishmael, game's over here"
It was a weekend of reflection for Spurs fans, as two nights without games gave us a chance to react to the first few games and recent Spurs news. We learned that Fabricio Oberto would retire, that James Anderson is going to be a dad, worried about player health and fretted about whether or not our 3-1 record was legit. The cure for this uncharacteristic contemplation? A dumb-fun shoot-out with Ishmael Smith (?!?!?) and the Houston Rockets!
The Rockets were here without Yao and backup-who-might-be-better-than-the-starter Kyle Lowry, and lost both Aaron Brooks and Kevin Martin over the course of the game. Now, despite all the heart and effort by the replacements, they're the ones thinking about the future and what might have been at 0-5. There but for the grace of injuries go the Spurs.
So, things may have gotten a bit serious just now, but I'm sincere when I describe this as a clean, fun regular season game (if a bit brain-dead and defense-free). It wasn't until the fourth quarter that Spurs fans started to feel dread and impending doom, which by my count is one quarter later than usual. If you're concerned with how we won, mix some of that concern with gratitude that we have guys like Manu (and Tony! and Rage!) to bail us out when we play that poorly.
Still unable to relax about the up-and-down, back-and-forth, one-down-three-to-go eye-ten rivalry? Learn how to stop worrying in my SiMa-style Running Diary Rockets Recap.
Before I get started let me make explicit, I know one of the key ingredients to the awesome SiMa Diary Recaps of days past is hatred. The randomly selected Rockets to hate for tonight's game are Shane Battier, Luis Scola (always) and Brad Miller.
12:00 Tim gets the first opening tip of his career vs. Jordan Hill and it's Duncan's double team that leads to Ragejay triple. 3-0.
10:52 Spurs show they want to run, for real - after the Manu to Tony give'n'go, a Manu three in transition makes it 8-2.
9:24 Houston making it's response run on much easier shots, now - the despised Scola on a driving layup, and Kevin Martin getting an inexplicable amount of space from Manu Ginobili to shoot threes. 11-9.
8:02 If it weren't apparent that this was going to be a wild, fast-paced game, this sequence confirms it. Manu finds space for the mid-range jay, and then receives the Blair feed for a sky-high dunk. 15-11
6:33 The Spurs are doing a good job of contesting shots and denying drives, but everything's going in for both teams. Despised forward Luis Scola is 3-3. Sharp shooting outside and turnovers inside up to the first timeout, and it's 15-15.
4:42 Kevin Martin is getting most of his opportunities on the free throw line and wide open behind three. Anyone who remembers his 33 dropped on us last year begins to worry. 17-17.
4:07 Dice, unlike Neal, is a rock when he comes in the game for us, and keeps Houston from mopping up against our depleted bench. His trademark jumper here makes it 21 all.
2:05 When it was time for the first rotation, Pop elected to play Tony and the bench while resting Manu until almost the second Q. It leads to a tense exchange of open-ish threes: Martin's here, and RJ's response to make it 29-26.
1:22 Tony justifies the strategy by pulling off the most demoralizing play in the NBA: the backcourt steal to we-were-just-there fast break. Houston has to take a timeout after that. 30-29.
10:14 Houston was 68% from the field in the first quarter, and it's clear why when Brad Miller gets an open 15-footer (probably the only shot he can make at his advanced age) and not long after freezes Blair into giving him another one. C'mon Blair, make the caveman drive it! The spurs are keeping up in scoring, but the game looks like it's available to whichever team wants to play some defense. 39-38.
9:38 This marks the first Ugly Ishmael Smith Shot of the night. If the Houston PG injuries linger, and if Houston fans need something to do, they should make a drinking game out of this. 41-38, with the Spurs starters getting antsy to come in.
7:53 After Gary Neal hits the three, you can see his blinders go on and he takes a potentially career-altering shot off a Blair screen, with two defenders closing on him. Pop is watching intently and does not look pleased. Willing to shoot the ball is a good thing up until the point it becomes a very very bad thing. Still trailing, 43-41
7:15 Rockets turnover, Manu Ginobili bounce pass, Dejuan Blair tries to tear the rim down. The fans go crazy with Dabeast's dunk, and more importantly, the Spurs bench is holding court while Tim and RJ rest. They can't score in the half-court, they can't defend in the half-court, but they're back to tied at 43.
6:55 Tim and Tony come back in, with RJ soon to follow. It's the starters and Hill and Dice from here out, and here's where we start to make our push. The defense suddenly improves radically.
5:29 Tony makes two free throws - remember this moment - and the lead goes up to six. Blair's about to miss another easy shot, but it's all good... the fans are feeling better about this lead, because the Rockets are no longer making every bucket. The magical period where both teams were shooting great and avoiding all turnovers has evaporated along with the fast pace.
3:10 "The Spurs signed Chris Quinn, formerly of Miami, and New Jersey"... and of the Shire, I'm guessing. It's been too long since we've had a mythical creature on our roster, and from appearances alone Quinn seems to fit the bill. Chris Quinn, only distantly related to the Bag-End Baggins, is shown cracking up his new teammates with a dirty one about an elf maiden and the king of trolls. 52-45 after Timmy makes one of two.
2:46 The very next possession for the good guys has RJ driving hard and getting to the line, where he too misses one. From 6:55 to the half, the Spurs take fourteen foul shots, but only make eight of them. Unfortunately this is just one of the ways we didn't build the lead higher when we could; we missed easy shots throughout the second quarter, and the Rockets made some tough contested ones.
2:09 Manu and RJ continue to run the ball when possible, and assist each other on transition scores here. Manu's twisting layup is a classic and makes it 55-48.
0:33 The quarter ends with a few more missed opportunities. While the Rockets are taking and missing jump shots, the Spurs get careless and turn it over twice in the last two minutes. 57-50 after a Tony traveling charge when it could have been much higher.
While attempting the halftime heave, Aaron Brooks lands on Manu's ankle and takes himself out of the game. For the second half the only ball handler on the squad is undrafted rookie Ish Smith. This has to be hard news to get when you're down five and winless, but it's especially painful for the oft-injured Rockets.
12:00 Now, I wasn't in that locker room, but I'll bet you Pop talked to the team a little bit about defense. And judging by what happens when the Spurs come back out for the third, I'd wager he told them to recommit to running the ball as well. Although Spurs fans are uneasy (to say the least) about trying to run teams out of the ATnT, it seems to pay off tonight.
9:34 The Spurs are running off of misses and makes alike, and either attacking either before the big men get set or right as they sink into position. This doesn't allow the Rockets defense time to react to anything the Spurs are doing. After a sweet runner by Martin starts to go in, Duncan Manu and RJ are off in the other direction, and another Manu bounce pass leads to a much easier shot than the Rockets are able to get. 65-58
8:37 A dead ball opportunity arrives to bring Miller in for Scola (four fouls), and the Rockets can't seem to get anything going this half. With Scola out it'll be Ish Smith, K. Martin, Battier, Brad Miller and Jordan Hill, a lineup that has concerns on defense and a bunch of guys who feed off team offense, not create it. The following stretch is as grim as it got for Rocket fans, starting at 67-60.
6:52 Sean Elliot called it - "Here's the time, here, with no Aaron Brooks and Scola on the bench." The Spurs have extended their lead with great ball movement and threes from Manu and RJ. With Tim Duncan jogging the break in front of him, Tony is able to get enough space for a jumper of his own to make it 77-64, Time out.
4:03 After RJ nails another nice-looking jumper, the Spurs give three points of their game-high fourteen point lead right away. Tony has been gambling on Ish Smith all night, and when he gets beat RJ is caught between him and the basket. You can't blame him for sticking with Ishmael, but the right play would let Tim and Dice handle it and close out on Battier. Instead, 83-72 and it's just about bench time.
2:40 At this dead ball we rotate out RJ Duncan and Parker and bring out the all-new lineup of Neal Hill Manu Splitter and McDyess. It's also the start of a series of possessions where the Rockets are finally able to get some buckets inside. I truly believe that up to this point, the Spurs haven't allowed many easy shots for the rocks, who have been pretty good about making them anyway. 85-74.
0:02 Let's see... Since the above we've had a Brad miller slow-moving fake and lay-in, a Ish Smith against Antonio McDyess matchup that doesn't go well, another half-speed Miller move inside, an unaccounted-for Chuck Hayes crashing the offensive boards, and a Smith-Miller screen and roll that leads to a ridiculous bank shot. The lead's down to seven, 91-84.
11:45 Manu had a great night when it comes to long twos on the move. And frankly he's one of the best in the game at offense when there isn't any offense to work with. That said, it's hard to be happy with this shot (a big step to the side against the zone and an almost-there 20 footer). The zone is clamping down on our inside-out ball movement, and the Rockets get two threes by running with our misses. Rocket fans are heard on the broadcast for the first time. 91-90.
9:11 Duncan and Parker have come back in for Neal and Splitter but the lead is down to one. In the halfcourt, our defense is a lot better, but with two passing turnovers we aren't able to get everyone back. Frankly Manu is a prime culprit for the sloppy play so far. Rockets 94-91.
7:39 Tim Duncan finally scored for the Spurs a few seconds ago, and Manu chips in with a beauty of a three. With RJ coming in after the timeout the Spurs have somewhat righted the ship; or at least, it's even, 94 all.
7:33 First play out of the timeout and Tony gets inside for some free throws. And he actually makes them! Spurs fans are breathing again. 96-94.
6:58 The ball comes right to Tony after the miss and he runs it all the way down the court, screening Rockets into each other to attempt what the play-by-play can only describe as a 'two-point shot': A quick bank shot with tons of momentum with a soft brake on it, almost after it's released. The next possession he sets up RJ for his fourth triple to make it 103-98.
5:54 Our defense over this stretch is again unable to even get in position to contest shots. The Rockets are drawing fouls on everybody - putting us in the penalty - and make six straight free throws to get to 103-102. Kevin Martin quietly leaves the game with a sprain, and will not return.
4:43 Both teams start to play defense and contest shots. Ish Smith - four of sixteen when all would be said and done - misses a wild one but Courtney Lee is there to tip it in. 105-104.
3:20 A defensive lapse lets Lee score again. We've lost the lead, and with it any confidence we can shut them down over the next three minutes. The most amazing thing about the Rockets comeback is that they're able to play credible defense against the Spurs starters with the guys they have, even though they got beat in the starter-on-starter matchups earlier when Martin and Brooks were available. 106-105.
1:44 We're trading baskets, but theirs seems to be coming a lot easier. Scola gets two 16-foot jumpers pretty much uncontested; they could call that Luis-range. The Manu banker on the way down is ten times harder. This is not a good thing at 110-109, and the Spurs are defending Ish Smith really really well and everybody else poorly.
0:45 A Battier three (Boo this man) and a Dice miss set the stage. Everyone can see the Smith-Scola screen and rola coming, and it almost works if not for McDyess chasing it from behind and blocking the layup. What happens next makes my heart sing: Dice corrals it, launches it ahead for RJ, who has a head of steam by the time he reaches the basket. 113-111.
0:16 For the last ten minutes, the Spurs have played respectable field defense. They've had timely offense from Manu, from Tony, and from RJ. They're playing against Ishmael freaking Smith and Hayes, who have played all night. Why then are we down two and hoping a career 85% free throw shooter will brick one so we still have a chance? Well, every other aspect of defense - forcing turnovers, defensive rebounding, not fouling - has been a travesty in the fourth. The Rocks are 6-6 FTs, 5 OReb and only 3 TO in the fourth. We shouldn't be down, but then again we shouldn't be in this one anymore either.
0:15 He misses them both.
0:09 Manu Ginobili time. Now we see why he was practicing these ridiculously hard shots earlier in regulation. He shakes Courtney Lee, takes a huge step to the side and gathers and shoots before Lee can get back. Ices it, tie game.
I'm something of a stats nerd. So it might be weird to be talking about energy and mood and how the Spurs were feeling (especially because I'm a nerd and not a Spur). But I think they had to have been a little energized by how we were able to force overtime. And the Rockets, conversely, had been all putting in overtime already with so few players available, and knowing that their workday was not done couldn't have been motivating. Either way we definitely had the mojo star going into the bonus ball.
4:23 Lee's hesitation drive and layup prove the vets on the Rockets aren't completely done yet. First blood and a 115-113 lead.
3:39 Half-court defense is finally up to the level of these teams' reputations. Despite Tony's best chase and Tim lurking on his half of the screen and roll, Ish Smith hits a tough runner and his first shot in forever to make it 117-113. Still no sweat.
2:49 Poor Ish Smith has been playing non-stop since Aaron Brooks rolled his ankle at halftime. First Tony takes him to both sides of a great McDyess screen to rattle a long jumper in, and then he draws a foul on the rookie. 117-116.
1:36 First, a transition style screen and roll for the Spurs - Duncan gets to his spot quickly and right away Tony gets a short pull-up out of it. Next, Ish Smith drifts a little too close to a flat-footed Hayes, and Tony leaves his guy to poke the ball away, and it's off to the races. Tony now has our last seven points. 120-119, Spurs lead.
0:22 Scola rebound and lay-up gives the Rockets back the lead, but the Spurs are able to pull a crazy play together and pass the ball enough times and fast enough to lure them into a hypnotic trance. Tim lays it in before it wears off, and it looks like the Rockets will get the last chance to change 122-121.
0:14 Now a Manu steal! SRS and the whole PTR crew come out of the closet for Manu. There is no suspense during the Manu free throws. Even though he's only 5% better career than Courtney Lee, it is inconceivable that he misses one let alone both. And so it's now a three point deficit for the desperate Rockets.
0:01 It's fitting but a little sad that the last possession in this thrilling, tense, mistake-filled, defense-free game saw the Rockets getting increasingly frantic three pointers until the rebounds ran out. For the optimistic among us, it's a good sign that we win the game on a defensive possession, it's the tribe's way. Since 'the optimistic among us' is probably just me and the Coyote, I won't linger on the positive too much.
Richard Jefferson - Reliable, efficient, durable - RJ matched minutes with Battier at 39, but won the position handily with 22 points on 13 shots. It's never been any other way, at least as long as I can remember, for the Rock of San Antonio Richard Allen Jefferson.
Manu Ginobili - Naysayers will pick apart his defense and decision-making, usually strengths for the Argentine. I'll remember the jumper, the steal, and the boost the team seems to get from having him available in the fourth.
Tony Parker - Speaking of steals, did you read that Tony had 5? 14 assists and 5-6 from the line rounds out a very clutch night for Tony.
Next up, Spurs and Cats! The (maybe) return of the Red Rocket! The continued attempt to drive Spurs fans mad with wins in the most un-Spur-like fashion possible!