This one didn't start like most people would have imagined. The Rockets are a great offensive team that likes to push the pace and the Spurs are no slouches on offense, either. But for the entire 1st quarter it was defense that set the tone. Both teams were packing the paint to avoid dribble penetration, which made it hard for their stars to get going. James Harden and Tim Duncan both forced the action a bit en route to a six and seven point first quarter, respectively, because their teams needed them to.
The second quarter saw the Rockets' defense begin to crumble while the Spurs' mostly held. Patrick Beverly and Carlos Delfino kept the offense afloat for the home team while Kawhi Leonard and a surprisingly aggressive Boris Diaw carried the Spurs for the most part. Both teams moved the ball well, but the Spurs' defense was contesting well and kept the Rockets scoreless for three and a half minutes. After getting a lead of nine points, the Spurs couldn't close the quarter well, scoring only three points in the last 3:26. Going into the break, the score was 46-43 Spurs, which seemed low considering the firepower both teams have.
After realizing that playing at the Spurs' pace was not a winning formula, the Rockets started pushing the ball up court as quickly as they could. They went small with Delfino at the four, goading the Spurs to try and take advantage of the match up on offense. That killed the ball movement and with no scoring coming from the bench, and the three pointer not falling, the Spurs just couldn't hang with a revitalized Rockets' offense, woken from its slumber by a scorching hot James Harden and his 12 points in the period. Going into the final quarter, the Rockets were up seven, 74-67.
But just like the Rockets' star, Tony Parker came alive in the fourth. Parker was aggressive and even went on an 8-0 run of his own, using the fact that the refs were calling the game tight to get to the line and to the hoop at will against a porous Rockets defense that only had one big on the court. The Spurs pulled away by four off a Parker bucket with 1:50 to go. Parsons then hit a huge three to get the Rockets to trail by only one. Parker extended the lead again to three and Harden missed one of the three free throws he earned after Kawhi Leonard clumsily fouled him on a three point attempt.
Instead of going to its star like most team do, the Spurs decided to run their offense during the final minute of the game. Ginobili and Duncan ran a pick and roll that left Duncan with a good look at the basket in the paint, but his runner missed. Since the refs couldn't decide who touched the ball last after it went out of bounds, they went with a jump ball that Duncan tipped the Spurs' way. Once again, the Spurs ran a play that left Kawhi Leonard with a pretty open corner three, but the shot hit the side of the backboard and the Rockets got it back.
Taking a more traditional approach, the Rockets had Harden inbound the ball, get a hand-off/screen from Asik and attack a back-pedaling Duncan. Harden pulled up and hit the tough jumper. The Spurs tried to run the same back door play that worked against the Warriors a few weeks back, but the Rockets were ready for it and Duncan had to take an off balance jumper instead. It missed. Ball game.
- I think most Spurs fans would have liked to see Parker actively involved in the offense late in the fourth and I'm no exception. He was hot at the time and he has been clutch for the Spurs all season. Hero ball is something the Spurs are lauded for avoiding but sometimes getting the ball to your best player is probably the way to go.
- And for my next trick, I will try to discuss Manu Ginobili's performance without making grandiloquent statements or bombastic predictions of doom or impending vindication. Manu had a modest game offensively, where he clearly seemed to be trying not to force things. He did a good job of moving the ball and assisting. By my count, Manu should have had nine assists instead of five had his teammates made shots they usually make. On defense, and especially on the boards, Manu showed hustle and didn't make mistakes. Still, the Spurs need more from him offensively. Ginobili can't finish with only six shot attempts.
- Tim Duncan had a rough night offensively and you can thank Omer Asik for it. Asik is an elite defender and made life difficult for Duncan all night. Still, it was a good performance defensively for Duncan but not up to par what the type of game he's been having. It's no big deal, he deserves a break.
- Green also had a rough game from the floor and was once again on the wrong end of a chase down block, this time courtesy of point guard Patrick Beverly. He also got to play against IcyHot doppelganger Carlos Delfino. They were both super Icy.
- Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw had solid if uninspiring games. Splitter continues to be solid on the boards and on defense while Diaw has a welcomed new-found aggression to his game. He also got a nasty block on Jeremy Lin that I liked.
- Kawhi Leonard, not unlike Manu, deferred to Duncan and Parker for the most part. After having a few games where he looked for ways to get involved on offense, Leonard was mostly quiet here. Don't get me wrong, 12 points on seven shots and six boards is a really good game but Kawhi didn't have the impact he has had in the past. And that foul on the Harden three pointer was just poor.
- Nando De Colo was your back up point guard for the evening and he did okay. He had one terrible turnover that the Spurs survived thanks to the hustle of his teammates, but he hit one of two three pointers and got two steals. Neal was inactive again and Joseph didn't see any playing time even though he suited up. I'm done trying to figure out what Pop is trying to do with the back up PG role.
- Stephen Jackson went 2-3 from beyond the arc! It might not seem like a big deal but with the year Jack is having shooting the ball I'm willing to take pretty much every good performance as a sign that he is turning things around. He also hustled for boards along with the other Spurs wings when the team went small. Overall, a solid showing for Jack
- With this win the Rockets solidify their position as the 7th seed in the West. I think the Spurs would beat them in a seven game series, for sure, but I consider them dangerous in any given night because their offense can go off at any time and they have a star player that gets a lot of superstar calls and can create under pretty much any circumstances. They are a bit like the 7SOL Suns in that you can't have mental lapses playing against them because they will push the ball and can get hot in a hurry. On a side note, who else is super glad Harden is not with the Thunder anymore?
So with this loss, and the Thunder win over Portland, the Spurs still lead the West but are now only 1.5 games ahead. The good news is, Tony Parker seems to be fully recovered and there are still a few games left to get everybody on the same page.
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