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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets

The Spurs host the Rockets on Christmas Day in the Alamo City. Houston limps into the contest having lost 5 of their last 10 games, and dealing with the injury to James Harden's ankle. San Antonio enters the game healthy, having won 7 of its last 9.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets

AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX
December 25, 2013, 7:00 PM Spurs Time

Despite the struggles of the past few weeks, San Antonio still sits in third place in the Western Conference and at 22-6 overall on the season heading into Christmas and a game against the Houston Rockets. The Spurs were winning every game in emphatic fashion earlier in the season, so the pace was bound to taper off a bit as the schedule grew tougher. However, San Antonio is still 7-3 over its last 10 games and holds the Western Conference's best point differential with +7.9 after beating the Raptors on Monday.

The Rockets, on the other hand, appear to be the definition of average, despite some roster moves this offseason meant to catapult Houston into conference contention. The Rockets still seem like they're a piece or two away and their record and stats prove that point. Houston would be the sixth seed if the season ended today, and they're 6-6 over the last 12 games and the team has an overall point differential of +3.4.

Even with the addition of Dwight Howard in the middle, Houston remains one of the weaker defensive teams in the West, especially if you just consider teams that are supposed to make a run in the playoffs. James Harden is obviously Houston's best player, but the Rockets may be without his services as he is currently out with an injured ankle. Harden missed Houston's last game, and the result was a loss to the Dallas Mavericks despite a big game in the middle for Howard.

Losing your star player is always tough, but even more so for a Houston team built around two players. Harden leads the Rockets in points, assists and steals this season and without him Houston has struggled to find easy offense. Howard has been in beast mode lately, but he is still a liability on the offensive end if he isn't catching alley-oops or putting back offensive rebounds.

The scoring pressure for the Rockets without Harden falls on guys like Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley. No one outside of Harden is averaging over 20 points a game. For a team that is ranked second in the league in scoring (106.3), that means Houston plays a lot of guys. The Rockets have 10 players averaging over 17 minutes a game this year. Nine of those players score at least seven points per game.

On defense, only six teams allow more points per game than Houston's 102.4, and Howard cannot cover up the defensive deficiencies of Houston's backcourt. The trio of Lin, Harden and Beverley all struggle on defense and Howard has not been able to mask those issues as the Rockets had hoped when they signed him.

Houston is going to score points, and Dwight Howard is going to have an impressive stat-line when this game ends. But without Harden, it will take a sleep-walking performance from the Spurs to lose the game; that or more Spurs coming down with random tooth aches or stomach pains, as happened to Kawhi Leonard and Cory Joseph respectively, over the last two games.

Matchup to Watch: How will San Antonio control the boards against Dwight Howard and Houston? The Rockets are the sixth best rebounding team in the NBA and Howard has been on a tear lately on the boards. Teams that live off the offensive glass have had success against the Spurs this year, and a dominant performance by Howard is one of the only ways the Rockets can win this game if Harden can't play.

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The Rockets fans' perspective can be found at SBNation's excellent The Dream Shake.

Game Prediction: Spurs by 7.

As always Tony must dominate Fisher, and NBA league pass is recommended for those who are willing to pony up the cash. Almost every Spurs game will be broadcast there, which is especially helpful for those of us who aren't in the San Antonio area. Please don't post links to illegal game feeds in the game thread. Links to illegal feeds are not permitted on SBNation, but you can probably find them out there on the internets if you're resourceful and desperate.

Get your San Antonio Spurs tickets from Daniel Farias with Spurs Sports & Entertainment:

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