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Spurs top Rockets in Patty Mills' return

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Harden and Howard combined for only 13 free throw attempts, which is 59 below their combined average.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Game 32 Vs. Houston: Spurs 110, Rockets 106   Record: 19-13    4th in Southwest, 7th in West    Streak: W-1

Man, I missed Patty Mills.

I'm probably one of the bigger Cory Joseph honks at PtR, I really love his game, his attitude and his perseverance, the way he continues to get better week after week. But Joseph doesn't have that it, whatever it is, the ability to rev up a whole building, send a jolt of energy coursing through a team and unnerve the opponent into making silly mistakes. In a way their little rivalry is the poor man's version of the age-old Tony vs. Manu debate. Cory is the better overall player but when he's on, he only really gets himself going. Mills does fewer things well, but he creates a sense of manic frenzy that stirs everyone.

"His return was huge," agreed Gregg Popovich, after his Spurs held on to a 110-106 victory at the AT&T Center against the Rockets, their first win against Houston since two years to the day, a span of seven games. "He couldn't find his shot tonight, but his energy being on the court, being a team guy, moving the basketball... he made a few free throws and a jumper, so it's huge for us."

Mills was as rusty as can be after not playing in a real game since June 15, the Finals-clincher against Miami. In the first half he missed all three of his field goal attempts, a number of defensive rotations and committed three ghastly turnovers. It would've been perfectly understandable if Pop called it a night for him and went with others in what was a back-and-forth game. Instead, he played Mills all but 12 seconds of the fourth quarter and it paid off with Mills scoring eight points on 3-of-5 shooting and a pair of free throws. He also hounded James Harden into the game-deciding turnover, as Harden dribbled the ball off his knee with Mills siccing him with 25 seconds to go and the Spurs up three.

"I had to fight (Popovich to play) and I think I won the battle in the end and got to play," said a weary Mills afterward, adding, "Shoulder felt great. It is fully repaired now. It has been for a little bit. It was just good to get out there. Lungs were great, legs felt great... It's all about dusting the cobwebs off the ball-handling skills a little bit."

In the end Mills showed the difference between a shooter and a scorer. Though his three-ball was far off the mark, he still found a way to get his points, with his first points of the season coming on the business end of a 2-on-1 layup from  --of all people-- Tiago Splitter.

The Spurs fed off Mills' energy for sure but were also buoyed by another strong performance from Joseph, who hit 6-of-9 shots on the way to his 14 points while contributing 6 rebounds and 4 assists and plenty of pestering defense, doing his best Patrick Beverley impersonation. Manu Ginobili had another good all-around game with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists and Tim Duncan had 11 of his 16 in the opening quarter, to keep the Spurs afloat in an opening period where they surrendered 33 to Houston. Even Aron Baynes helped, scoring 8 points and showing far better touch around the basket than Tiago Splitter, before fouling out in 10:14 of play.

The star of the game though, without a doubt, was the multi-talented Danny Green, who led the Spurs with 24 points, picked off five wayward Rockets passes, drew a pair of charges on Harden fast breaks and even got a few layups to trickle in for him tonight. Green set a career-high with 10 free throw attempts, making nine, and nailed all four of his freebies down the stretch to bring the Spurs home.

"I missed a couple the last couple of games," Green reminded, "I was pretty upset at myself for that, especially in New Orleans. I missed two in a row here, which is unlikely, that was probably as frustrated as I've been with myself, it's just a confidence thing."

Popovich and others have grown confident enough in Green's stroke from the stripe and beyond that they've come to rely on him at the close of games. Ginobili went as far to admit that he cost the Spurs a game against the Grizzlies because he tried forcing a pass to Green late in an overtime period rather than trusting himself to get fouled and hit the clinching free-throws.

It was hardly a beautiful performance by the Spurs or even a very good one, with 19 turnovers and countless misses inside by Splitter and Duncan, but they took advantage of a sloppy Houston team that threw it away 25 times leading to 22 fast break points by the Spurs, a high number for them without the services of Kawhi Leonard or Tony Parker. The Rockets will probably suffer a bit of growing pains integrating Josh Smith and Corey Brewer into the lineup --the pair had seven of the 25 giveaways-- but while Smith contributed nothing to their cause in 25 hapless minutes except perhaps some decent post defense on Splitter, Brewer led the Rockets with 25 points, making 6-of-8 threes.

In truth this kinda looked like the Rockets team I was expecting when I predicted them to miss the playoffs, just throwing the ball all over the gym, missing too many free throws, surrendering too many open threes and collapsing late in games with boneheaded mistakes. Instead, they've been able to overcome their propensity to give it away (they're third in turnover-rate behind the Sixers and Bucks) and found away to keep opponents from scoring anyway, even though Dwight Howard has missed nearly half of their games. Howard was fantastic tonight, completely unstoppable inside, making 11-of-13 shots and hauling in 17 rebounds, completely overpowering Duncan or Splitter. Harden, meanwhile, scored his usual 28 while making 10-of-18 shots and repeatedly found shooters wide open in the corners with his devastating drive-and-kick game. The Rockets were excellent at spacing the Spurs defense out, getting them to suck in on drive and whizzing it around the perimeter to get open looks, and on most nights they'd have made more than the 12 long-balls they canned.

Both Howard and Harden were responsible for the loss down the stretch, with the former missing three free throws and Harden committing three of his nine turnovers in the fourth quarter, including the deciding one against Mills. It felt more like a game that they lost rather than one the Spurs won.

Whatever, the Spurs will take it. They were due some breaks after the horrid December they've had. For much of the game it looked like it would be more of the same, with Brewer scoring on buzzer-beater heaves to end the first and second quarters, including a 30-footer he banked in. He's the latest in a long line of sub-par shooters who've lit up the Spurs this month. Eventually though, luck swung the other way, with Splitter and Joseph hitting improbable shot clock-beating shots of their own in what was otherwise a gruesome third quarter, Boris Diaw banking in a three and Green swishing a 30-footer to beat another expiring shot clock.

Maybe it was all connected, the shots hit, the return of Mills and the first victory in forever against an opponent that had their number. December's almost over and you get the sense that momentum is right around the corner, if only they can hold on until Leonard and Parker return for good.

Even if ultimately it proves to mean nothing at all, let the record show the Spurs put another "W" on the barbie, in a stretch where they've been hard to come by.

Your Three Stars:

3. Manu Ginobili (36 pts)

2. Cory Joseph (27 pts)

1. Danny Green (33 pts)