The Texas Showdown means almost nothing to me, and I think for a majority of spurs fans today it might not mean anything right off the bat. In fact, were you to ask Spurs fans which team they'd assume we'd have a Texas Showdown with, I bet to a majority would say the Dallas Mavericks. And they wouldn't necessarily be wrong.
But Houston's acquisition of Dwight Howard and James Harden has re-injected something into the Spurs-Rockets rivalry that hasn't been seen since Robinson-Olajuwon. Not because Howard brings his best stuff against Tim (that rivalry probably still belongs to Dirk Nowitzki). No, Dwight Howard, and to a lesser extent James Harden, ignites a firestorm within Spurs fans because of his unwavering tendency to act like an overgrown manbaby. So it is no stretch to say that, despite our burgeoning rivalry with the Oklahoma City Thunder, this year's four Spurs-Rockets contests, feel like bonafide playoff games. OKC has Golden State. The Clippers has Memphis. The Spurs have the Rockets. You're welcome, NBA.
But Saturday night didn't start the rivalry well for the Silver & Black. The Spurs looked like a team being out-executed -- needing titanic help from Tony Parker and Marco Belinelli to remain anywhere close to striking distance, and the trademark defense was at times flabbergasted by Houston's bevy of talented three point shooters. We've praised the defense so far this season, and rightly so, but when faced with two offenses that generate open looks for their outside shooters (OKC and Houston), the Spurs' discipline left much to be desired. Gregg Popovich, already livid from a particularly baffling call we'll get to later, was in the ear of both Parker and Matt Bonner throughout the game, presumably because of their laughable closeouts on shooters like Patrick Beverley and Chandler Parsons. Sadder still, Pop could've raged at Marco and (gasp!) Danny Green with some of the same fervor, but he apparently had his fill of raging. They'll presumably get an earful on Sunday.
Sloppy passing and ill advised shots dominated this game, leading to the Spurs caroming themselves into a 25 point hole at one point in the second quarter. The Foreign Legion, heretofore a paragon of offensive efficiency, was stifled by the Turkish Delight, Omer Asik, an All-Defensive Team quality center the Rockets have the privilege of bringing off their bench. Pop was determined to run the Rockets as much as possible, frequently utilizing small-ball lineups featuring Kawhi Leonard at the four, and either Tiago Splitter or Tim Duncan at center. Boris Diaw was a major contributor before leaving with an utterly gruesome dislocated finger, and despite his striking physical similarity to Terrance Jones, Jeff Ayres was nowhere to be found. We'll talk in a minute about Kawhi, but Jones' excellent play was one of the keys for the Rockets' win tonight. Pundits have flapped their gums about how the Rockets should be after Ryan Anderson as a stretch four to pair with Dwight Howard -- and there's no doubt Anderson would be incredible in Houston -- but Jones is younger and already far more active on the defensive end than Anderson will ever be. And his acumen for tracking rebounds is doing wonders when Dwight Howard has inattentive boards nights like he did on Saturday. Omer Asik may not be a happy man coming off the bench in Houston, but Kevin McHale seems to know exactly what he's doing with Houston's rotation so far.
But in the midst of all the discombobulation and SEGABABA hangover mediocrity, the anger and passion that can ignite an entire stadium peeked its head out for a minute in late November. Faced with a gargantuan deficit that the Spurs have been regularly inflicting upon others this year, and with the cackling of some pretty onerous Houston fans echoing down from the rafters, Tony Parker decided that he was going to take the game over. We've come to expect overpowering performances from Tony, even while acknowledging that a lot of fans were clamoring to trade him less than three years ago. But Parker's 14-0 run to nearly close out the second quarter, in the face of a stingy Rockets defense and dragging along a Spurs offense that couldn't figure out where to go, was one of those special sequences that absolutely deserves to be talked about towards the end of the year. Tony's rhythm was pitch perfect, sticking defenders off-balance and generating the exact shots that he wanted both in transition and in the normal offense. Much can be said about how well Tony finishes miraculous "something from nothing" plays, but just as much should be said about Tony's innate ability to work his way inside the three point line to find the exact shot that he wants, without disrupting the normal flow of the offense. His late second quarter act of putting the team squarely on his shoulders kept the Spurs within striking distance going into the second half.
A second half which, it should be said, rivaled any game that's been played so far this year by any team, and many games that were played in the playoffs last year. Enlivened by Pop's berating of Tom Washington for one of the more singularly weird quarter-ending plays I've ever seen, the Spurs, and the Spurs crowd, were at Full Playoff Level for the last 24 minutes of the game. There was a moment when, trailing 81-80 with about 80 seconds to go in the third quarter, the AT&T Center noise level was the loudest I had ever heard it for an early season regulation game. It wouldn't reach quite that level again for the rest of the game, even as the Spurs took the lead from Houston, but for a few fleeting moments in the third quarter, a Playoff game was being played in San Antonio.
Which is, of course, exactly why The Texas Showdown should now mean something to everybody involved. The Rockets are formidable again in a way they haven't been since the all-too-brief heyday of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. And they are going to cause problems for every team they play. As long as they have Asik, and continue to grow Jones, they are going to be serious Western Conference contenders, setting aside the quasi-inevitability of a Dwight Howard hissy fit. But the growing animosity Spurs fans have for Howard, Harden and now presumably coach Kevin McHale, is going to fuel something quite a bit more special in the here and now - a budding rivalry based on bad blood and state pride. The Spurs play the Rockets three more times. I only hope we get three more barn-burners like the one we had tonight, albeit with the ending reworked just a bit.
Even the Coyote got in the spirit of the Texas Showdown, coming out for his first bit dressed in a coonskin cap and leather chaps. One wonders whether Zach Lowe of Grantland considers the chaps more or less creepy than the Coyote's traditional "tops no bottoms" look.
Standard Pop Quote
Ok, so this isn't really an entire quote, but it nicely sums up what might have been the weirdest moment of the night. With seconds left in the first half, and Tim Duncan about to inbound the ball from 3/4 court on side with the Rockets bench, Kevin McHale inserted himself almost directly into Tim's eyeline, to the point that Tim's down the line pass to Manu Ginobili was awkwardly thrown and awkwardly handled, leading to a bizarre play to end the half. Pop, irate, then proceeded to give referee Tom Washington, and McHale, a piece of his mind regarding the matter. Pop was hit with a tech, and probably would've been ejected had not Ime Udoka strongly held him back. Still, Pop found time to confront McHale about the incident, which he called "hogwash." We've certainly heard much worse from Pop, but this has to earn points for flavor.
Tony Parker - 27 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 turnovers on 13-27 shooting.
The shooting is not where it could be (almost an ugly More Shots Than Points, or MSTP), but what more can be said about Tony, who single-handedly shepherded the Spurs out of the largest deficit they've faced all season. He was easily the best player on the court tonight -- including James Harden and Dwight Howard -- and his inability to string together the magic for those final few plays in the fourth should be chalked up to pure exhaustion. Patrick Beverley looked like he was going to give Tony problems with his pesteringly long hands, but Tony, as he has been wont to do in the past, continued to push through Beverley until he got precisely what he wanted. A masterful game from the Spurs' best player.
NOTE: I can't go on without mentioning how critical Marco Belinelli was in this game. If Tony's offense kickstarted the comeback, Marco's magic touch brought it to full fruition. The third and early fourth quarter saw the resurgence of the Foreign Legion, and that was due overwhelmingly to Marco's unflappable shooting stroke. As Dan McCarney of the Express News tweeted, Belinelli's shooting a ridonkulous .550% from three. Without him, we're probably talking about how ice cold the Spurs wings have been. While it wasn't enough to snatch the MVP from Tony, my oh my, how quickly Marco is working his way into this offense.
Kawhi Leonard - 6 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, 3 blocks, 1 turnover on 3-8 shooting, including 0-3 from 3.
Ok. Let's all take a deep breath before diving into this for a minute.
Kawhi Leonard is an amazing basketball player. The things he is doing on the defensive side of the ball for the San Antonio Spurs are nearly impossible to measure accurately (seriously, those steal and block numbers really don't do him justice). He was playing defiant defense on James Harden early, and probably would've been allowed to continue said defense if Pop hadn't somewhat strangely decided to try out the Kawhi Leonard, Small Ball Four, experiment in the fourth quarter.
His offense is another matter. I'm not going to belabor a point that so many others have mentioned in much greater detail than I can here, but I would like to point out a sequence of events that bears mentioning as we move forward this season. As the Spurs went point for point with the Rockets in the fourth quarter, and as Pop began to employ the Hack-A-Howard strategy, it became imperative for the Spurs to continue generating positive shot opportunities from Tony's offense. For a while, this worked. Then on one particular play, the ball ended up in Kawhi Leonard's hands for an above the break three on the right wing. He took it, as Pop has taught him to do. And as we've seen with the vast majority of Kawhi treys this year, it clanged. Next dead ball, Marco Belinelli was coming in for Kawhi.
Yes, this is November. This game matters very little in the grand scheme of the 2013-14 season. Yet it was disheartening to watch Pop admit that in order for the Spurs to stay on pace with the Rockets, he would have to bench his best defensive wing player for a mediocre defender with a hot shooting stroke. Any other coach would do the same thing, given the breakage we are seeing on Kawhi's shooting stroke. And I have little to no doubt Kawhi will rebound from this slump and begin shooting from deep as he has almost his entire young career.
But for tonight, Kawhi's peculiar lack of range cost the Spurs their best defender in a matchup where he was sorely needed.
By the Numbers
- 11 - Assists for Manu Ginobili. He struggled in the early second with Omer Asik and the plucky Rockets bench, but through sheer force of will Manu managed to carve out a beautifully managed game with only four turnovers. Plus, just to reiterate a point I'm sure you're all aware of, he and Marco appear to be soul mates when they're on the court together.
- 8-13 - Tim Duncan's shooting performance tonight. In particular I want to highlight that his first two midrange shots dropped, even as they were mildly contested by Dwight Howard. Tim's shot is slowly creeping it's way back. The looks he gets in the post are the next thing to come back, and since those have become an increasingly small piece of the Tim Duncan Shot Pie Chart, I'd say we're almost fully back to efficient Tim!
- 4-6 - The full stats on tonight's Hack-A-Howard. I would say this was a reasonably good outcome for the Spurs, but our offense failed to capitalize on Howard's misses. Say one thing for the New Big Baby, Howard seems to correct himself on his second shot after missing his first, which is obviously the first step to fixing his free throws.
- 2-3 - The expanded Hack-A-Howard stats. Let me explain. Trailing 97-98 with 2:33 left in the fourth, James Harden crossed the timeline into Rockets territory, Dwight Howard a few steps behind him. Marco Belinelli, rushing to hack Howard, caught the eye of Harden. Harden quickly jacked up a three as Marco fouled Howard, resulting in the Rockets sending Harden to the line for three free throws instead of Howard for two. Harden sank two of the free throws, and while a two-point outcome was possible with Howard shooting, it was highly unlikely. Heady play by Harden that definitely came back to haunt the Spurs.
- 5 - The Hole through which Manu Ginobili passed a basketball to Tim Duncan for a beautiful shot, in hockey speak. Seriously. Go look at this GIF
Bird is the Word
I swear, Harden's beard affects the way refs call the game. It's got a life all to its own.— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) December 1, 2013
I think Spurs fans hate the Thunder most of the teams in that TX/OK region, but the Rockets could supplant.— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) December 1, 2013
Judge Reinhold with an early candidate for Worst Layup of the Year.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) December 1, 2013
The Rockets are how everyone plays video games.— Jesse Blanchard (@blanchardJRB) December 1, 2013
Pop won't bite on McHale questions after the game. Duncan doesn't either. "I don't feel like messing with that," TD says.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) December 1, 2013
That's when you just throw the ball off McHale's head.— Jesse Blanchard (@blanchardJRB) December 1, 2013
It's cute in November.
— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) December 1, 2013
Odds and Ends
- Matt Bonner, in what might be the most baffling aspect of his career, completely infuriates Dwight Howard. There was a moment in the third quarter, as the Spurs were making their run from the depths, when Bonner got hit by an errant (or naybe not so errant) elbow from Howard in a scrum under the Rockets basket. Howard was called for a foul and spent a solid eight or so seconds emoting to the refs. But what happened afterwards was mystifying. Howard, seemingly somehow fazed by Bonner, began jawing at Bonner from fifteen feet away going back up the court. Matt, sportsman he is, didn't respond. Still, it was insanely humorous to watch one of the most powerful men to play the game of basketball get unnerved by a man who's post game could graciously be described as "non-existent."
- We didn't get to see it tonight, but Tiago Splitter has been spending a lot of time working on a fifteen foot jump shot off of a jab step in the warmups before games. His release is still far too slow to merit any consideration as a legitimate NBA move, but it's worth noting for the near -- or more than likely not so near -- future.
- A quick pregame note: one of the critical differences between Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan vs. Jeff Ayres can be seen in the way they warm up. Ayres is much younger than either player, yet he still uses his warmup time to take ill-advised shots that he will more than likely never have a chance at converting, or even seeing, in a normal NBA game. Perhaps he's trying to expand his game, but watching Boris and Tim steadily workshop the looks they knew they're going to get in the game reminds me just how special both guys are, in and outside the 48 minutes of game time proper.
- Ok, so to explain the tweet up there about "November." There were a large contingent of Rocket fans at the game tonight. This is to be expected, as the cities are not far apart from one another and San Antonio has a pretty nasty habit of harboring an inordinate number of non-Spur fans. However, the large, concentrated contingent of Rockets fans in the rafters of the stadium went out of their way to support their team. They screamed "ROCKETS" during the "rockets red glare" portion of the National Anthem. After the game, they also proceeded to parade around the rafters chanting "Go Rockets," which I guess is ok because they won. The one chant I found particularly irksome, however, came during Tiago Splitter free throws. The Rockets fans in attendance proceeded to start yelling "USA! USA!," focusing I suppose on Splitter's Brazilian heritage as a means of distracting his shot. I have two problems with this. One: the inanity of this chant should be apparent to Rockets fans, as the Rockets sport their own fairly impressive foreign legion of Omer Asik, Omri Casspi, Jeremy Lin, Francisco Garcia and Donatas Montiejunas. Two: isn't this a tad on the xenophobic side? I went to Boston University and was part of some pretty crass college hockey chants at the expense of lesser schools, but we rarely dipped into making a point of someone's non-American-ness. Especially in another team's arena, this seemed poorly timed, ill-conceived and kind of insensitive. But you tell me guys, am I too P.C.?
vs. Atlanta Hawks (9-9), Monday December 2nd at 7:30 CST: The Pop Acolyte Reunion Tour gets back on track after a trouncing of Jacque Vaughn's Magic with a visit from Mike Budenholzer's plucky Hawks. Coach Bud has Jeff Teague playing out of his mind as arguably the second best point guard in the Leastern Conference, and the combination of Paul Millsap and Al Horford is something I greatly desire to see play out from an offensive and defensive standpoint. But looking past that, the Spurs have another reasonably tough week ahead, even though there are only three games. The Hawks come to town Monday, the Spurs visit Ricky Rubio's phrenetic Timberwolves Wednesday, and then ... Saturday, Ooey-Pooey returns with his Pacers to the AT&T Center for a clash of the best of both conferences. Should be a fun week, hopefully filled with the start of another win streak.