Knowing that "home" won't be part of the team's vocabulary in the next few weeks, the San Antonio Spurs made the most out of its pre-Rodeo Road Trip home game by rounding up their Texas co-inhabitants, the Houston Rockets, 108-95. The Spurs got solid all-around contributions from their starters, who all scored in double figures led by hot-shooting Manu Ginobili (22 points, 4-6 from downtown) and the tireless DeJuan Blair (12 points and 14 rebounds). The game was close up until the beginning of the fourth quarter, when the Silver & Black rained threes to finally put away a hard-fighting Rockets squad bannered by Ginobili's teammate on the Argentine national team, Luis Scola, who scored 23 points.
The standard 'cap, after the jump.
Here's some music to get you started. Anberlin's gone really commercial these days and this video is quite over-the-top and meaningless, but I still like the song.
Before anything else, some Houston Homage
As a basketball fan, I've been respectful of what the Houston Rockets have achieved throughout that franchise's existence. My vivid memories of them are mostly confined to their back-to-back title runs in the Jordan-less portion of the 90s, where I enjoyed every bit of Hakeem Olajuwon's swashbuckling, dream-shaking, fadeaway-jumping, shot-swatting exploits on the way to beating other esteemed big men in Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O'Neal. If you didn't have your team get into the Finals those two years, it's easy to root for the Rockets especially because of Hakeem, who was the anti-thesis of a big man parading as a tough guy but really just a jump shooter and career playoff choker in a big media market (Ewing in NY), or a brash up-and-coming stud and his merry band of equally arrogant young 'ins (Shaq and crew in Orlando).
Fast forward later and after flirting with championship dreams using the Olajuwon-Barkley-Drexler-Pippen quadfecta, the Rockets seemed to have some Spurs luck in them and won the lottery in 2002 and drafted another unassuming, soft-spoken but highly skilled big man in Yao Ming. Yao didn't quite start strong in his rookie year, but the potential to be great was there -- the feathery touch from inside and outside, the ability to impact both ends of the floor, and the impeccable backing of an emerging superpower: not Microsoft or Apple or David Stern or Cobol Corporation, but the Chinese, who numbered in the billions and were literally everywhere. The world was Yao's oyster, and at the rate he was going, how can you not love the guy? (unless you really hate China and its fragile if not downright dangerous products)
Enter in 2007 whiz kid and MIT degree-toting Daryl Morey and his Moneyball-style approach to the game, and Houston was supposed to go places. After experiencing little bits of success, highlighted by the insane 22-game winning streak in '07-'08 and a Western Conference Semifinals appearance in 2009 where they took the Lakers to seven games, the Rockets are now mired in what you can probably call as NBA purgatory -- a middle-of-the-pack team that may barely make the playoffs or just fall short of it, both ways leaving the team with extremely low chances of winning the draft lottery and thus remaining without a true franchise-altering superstar, as Yao's career possibly meets an abrupt end with a slew of nasty injuries.
Now that I think about it, of the three NBA teams in Texas, the San Antonio Spurs and the Rockets have been the very fortunate ones (yay for the Mavs still not winning anything!), and are somewhat closely-related in terms of history. The Rockets were one of the first proponents of fielding a true "Twin Towers" combination with Olajuwon and mobile 7-footer Ralph Samson, which got them to at least a Finals appearance. The Spurs were fortunate enough to get their own twin towers and went on to win two titles with them. Both Hakeem and Tim Duncan were able to carry their teams to championship glory, and the teams also had (or still have) no-frills coaches in Rudy Tomjanovich and Gregg Popovich. While the Rockets aren't contenders right now, it'd be interesting to see if while the Spurs are on the tail end of the Duncan era, basketball gods will shift their favorable gaze to the Rockets. I do hope the gods keep it on the Spurs for a few more years though, especially this season.
So yeah, I just spent like four paragraphs talking about the other Texas team on a SPURS BLOG. Shows you how much writing skill I have (zero.. or close to it). Let's talk about our team, shall we?
1st Half - These Rockets seem to like Pop's lawn... a lot.
They haven't won titles or anything in the last few years, but I continue to tip my hat to this Houston team. They got guys who always play hard and compete every night, and, save for Yao's injury woes and the average dose of trade rumors, seem to be bereft of any intrigue or turmoil. From the outset the Rockets were determined to run with the suddenly-exciting Spurs, as both teams pushed the pace after every missed shot. Houston was even able to discombobulate the Spurs' consistently solid transition defense with a couple of fast break buckets that had Pop gasping for a timeout. That's what happens when the opponent fields a team on the court with its tallest player being 6'9", and tries to run like crazy at every opportunity.
Were the Spurs kind of complacent to start the game? I wouldn't be so sure, but it seemed like it. The defense at the beginning was sloppy, and Pop even had the team go into a zone only to yield consecutive offensive rebounds and second chance points. Tiago Splitter got an early call up and played with gusto, but still looked confused early on. He eventually settled down and even got an and-1 bucket (made the free throw to boot) that sent the PtR faithful into a near-World Cup frenzy with screams of TIAAAGGOOOAAAAL!
After trailing by 1 to start the 2nd quarter, Pop is again forced to call his signature early timeouts when Chase Budinger and his blonde curls went amok on the defense, scoring 4 straight easy points. GOML finally had enough of Air Bud and decided to sic his own attack dog -- Richard Jefferson -- on the poor guy, and Rage promptly shut Budinger down to reclaim "top dog" status. Haha, get it, top_dog? TOP DO... okay, never mind.
The highlights of the half were provided by DeJuan Blair, who completely defied the Spurs Way by LOL'ing his way to three slam dunks. Blair took out his early foul trouble frustrations on the rim, and he probably became a better man for it. Good job, Beast!
The team's starters looked really refreshed after that two-day break, and it showed as the offense hummed to 53 points on 51 percent shooting in the first half to put the team up by two. Ginobili, Parker, and Blair have all hit double figures already as the starters played magnificently to make up for the bench's lackadaisical start -- the Rockets bench outscored the Spurs bench 21-5 at the half. The title of "best bench in the league" seems to be favoring the opponent, can BAM bounce back?
Houston was kept in it by formerly a starter but now 6th man Aaron Brooks. I think it's a great move for Adelman to make him the primary scorer off the bench, because he tends to play recklessly and often kill ball movement, not to mention jack up threes. Is he really an NBA-level starter? I'm not so sure and I might be wrong, but I'll take our Tony Parker over him all day, everyday, including Sundays and holidays and TP's off days.
Halftime Haters Gonna Hate Photo + Dick Bavetta Bashing
Okay Stern, time to put that "NBA Cares" slogan to really good use by finally giving Dick Bavetta his millions worth of retirement benefits. But then again, maybe letting Dick stay on and referee games already constitute charity work. Bavetta was just making some questionable calls back there, and I'm more inclined to believe that those weren't truly based on judgment but by eyesight or senior moments experienced by senior citizens. I was actually kind of scared to research about Bavetta, fearing that I'd be forced to read about World War I, but thankfully I survived. Ladies and gentlemen, the good 'ol referee is now 71 years old. That's all we really need to know.
2nd Half - Time for another overused movie line: "Houston, we have a problem... a Manu-sized problem"
The Spurs burst out of the gate in an effort to get significant separation and put the game out of reach. An 11-2 burst highlighted by a five-point spurt by RJ 2.0 put the good guys up by 9, while Timmeh instructed the ball boys to prepare his couch and his popcorn and drinks for the inevitable fourth quarter blowout. However, Scola typified the Rockets' grit , pouring 11 of his 23 points in the quarter to pull his team within three points. It also didn't help that the Spurs were badly losing the offensive rebounding battle, yielding a total of 16 O-boards to the Rockets. The heroes seemed to be in a dogfight now as the enemy stayed within striking distance, down by only 5 points at the end of the third quarter.
Here's a fun fact for you: Scola is damn good, but our Argentine is better, perhaps the best of his lot ever at basketball. That distinction was further justified by Manu refusing to let this game decided by another overtime as he simply took over to start the fourth. Two straight threes from Gino placed some much needed distance between the scrappy opponents, and from there, the Spurs young guns, Hill and Blair, went to work to let the old timers rest.
I was feeling a little worried that up until late in the third quarter, George Hill was very much invisible for the game. And then as if on cue, he scored on a drive. That was all he needed to get going, pouring in 10 points in the final period mostly from the free throw line as he aggressively went on a foul-fishing expedition. Best of all, Mr. Ooey Pooey locked down deadeye scorer Kevin Martin during their matchups, and managed to destroy K-Mart's psyche a la Bruce Bowen by stealing the ball from Martin and finishing a dunk plus the foul. For a couple of games there I thought Neal was assuming the role of leader of the BAM, but thankfully Hill wasn't letting that distinction slip away so easily.
The lead could've been bigger if Gary Neal wasn't ice cold from the field, but back-to-back threes from The Wee Frenchman and Agent Orange finally sealed the Rockets' losing fate and formally open scrub time. Tiago, Chris Quinn and Larry Owens joined the James Anderson Welcome Back! Party, which ended on a happy note after Anderson nailed a pretty stepback jumper to set the final score. Game over, Spurs get to 40 wins faster than anyone this season, and a tear rolled down CapHill's cheek as the Spurs left the building to embark on a hopefully great and memorable adventure.
Smiles were further elicited as Timmy, Manu and TP all played below 30 minutes. Ahh, rest. Such a beautiful thing.
Your Three Stars (Honorable mentions to Tony and George)
3 -- Richard Jefferson - 18 points on 7-8 shooting, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 TO. Just what the doctor ordered for Rage before the RRT. This game should put more confidence in 2.0, which can only bode well for the team. Also, he added another 2 dunks to his team-high dunk count.
2 -- DeJuan Blair - 14 points, 12 rebounds (4 offensive), 3 assists, 3 blocks, 3 TOs. Even though Scola burned him a few times on defense, this didn't deter DeBeast from playing his usual energetic game. He was crucial in generating the few second chances that the Spurs got, and just overall played a solid game.
1 -- Manu Ginobili - 22 points (4-6 3FG), 1 rebound, 4 assists, 2 steals, 1 turnover. Seemed like a very quiet 22 points, but from the beginning you could already feel how determined he was to win the game. Hopefully he can keep up the good shooting form on the road.
Up Next: @ Portland Trailblazers. The Spurs start off the RRT with one of the only three teams with winning records that they'll be facing. They don't have Brandon Roy yet, but this team can still beat anyone on their good night, and LaMarcus Aldridge has been playing pretty impressive ball this season. Also, he's a David West-type of player who can shoot from midrange and inside the paint as well, guys whom the Spurs always find difficult to deal with.