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Tim Duncan leads Spurs to 104-103 win over Rockets

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With their second win in two days against the Rockets, the Spurs are now third in the West standings.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs have had a specific recipe for most of their wins in the past couple of months. They need Kawhi Leonard to be a star and either for Tony Parker to kill the defense with dribble penetration or for three-pointers -- contested and uncontested alike -- to fall. In the first half against the Rockets on Friday, the three ingredients were missing in equal parts. Leonard missed bunny after bunny while Houston's big men and Jason Terry prevented Parker from getting to the lane. With the drive and kick game not working, the three-pointers were hard to come by and when they became available they came after imprecise passes. It wasn't surprising that only one of seven found the bottom of the net.

That description of the first half makes it seem like the Spurs were getting drubbed. If we add extended minutes for Jeff Ayres and the heavy use of zone defense, it starts to sound like garbage time. Yet the Spurs trailed by only two at the break thanks largely to great play from the bench. Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw were the only Spurs to not look shook by Houston's adjustments and physicality and guided the team back to the game after a 13-point Rockets lead. Marco Belinelli and Cory Joseph did their job as well and even the much vilified Jeff Ayres filled in admirably for Aron Baynes, who was limited by foul trouble.

The Spurs couldn't ever take the lead in the first two quarters -- the Rockets somehow always found someone ready to make a timely bucket -- but surviving was impressive enough.

If the first half was a reminder of how many weapons the Spurs have, the third quarter showed that even some of the ones that have not been used lately can be deadly if wielded properly. Like always Tim Duncan woke up from his slumber when the team needed him to provide a scoring option as a dive man and none other than Patty Mills came alive to go 3-for-3 from beyond the arc to finally put the Spurs ahead in the third quarter. For a few minutes, the game was electrifying.

Yet like most games in which the Spurs are not clicking, the way they won this one wasn't pretty. Gregg Popovich decided to send Josh Smith to the line over and over to prevent the powerful Rockets' attack from hurting San Antonio from outside and on the break. It worked during the third period, as the former Piston and Hawk went 3-for-10 from the charity stripe. Pop didn't veer away from what was working and continued to order his men to foul Smith. He shot 26 free throws in total, all in the second half, and missed 14 of them.

The constant interruptions to the flow of the game got the Rockets' out of sync but almost cost the Spurs the game late. For intentional fouling to work, the team doing the hacking has to score and San Antonio struggled with that in the final quarter. The Rockets tied it twice and allowed no field goals made in the last five minutes of the game, but the Spurs made their free throws to score their last six points.

Up four and with 35 second to go, Duncan missed a point-blank layup that would have put the Spurs up six, essentially icing the game. A three by Harden was followed by a Ginobili turnover. Houston got the ball back for one last shot but Duncan more than made up for his missed shot with a block on a Harden drive to win it for San Antonio.

(Via The Cauldron)

With the win the Spurs leapfrogged the Clippers, Blazers and Rockets and now have the third best record in the West.

Game notes

  • I'm on board with at least taking a look at changing the rules for intentional fouling. Free throws are a part of basketball but when a team sends someone to the line over and over the game loses its appeal. That being said, it's legal now so the Spurs were smart to use it to their advantage.

  • Timothy Theodore Duncan finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, one steal and three blocks, including the game-saving one on Harden. Duncan did some work in the post and exposed every little mistake the Rockets made in their pick and roll coverage. The game was confirmation that Timmy has been chilling and letting others do the heavy lifting on offense but can still step up when needed.

  • Ginobili and Diaw, who were great in the first half, faded in the second. They were still the biggest reason the Spurs were in it after a slow start, so they get a pass.

  • PATTY MILLS, YOU GUYS! It was a throwback Patty performance in which he showed how his shot-making ability can change a game. Is he back? He struggled to get the ball up court against pressure from Pablo Prigioni and this has been the one good shooting display in a while, so I think it's premature to say that. But I'm looking forward to Pop giving him some minutes in the last two games, to see if he can sustain this level.

  • To say the starting backcourt struggled would be an understatement. Eugene Terry took advantage of the officials' permissive attitude early to body up Parker, who could never recover and converted only one of his seven shots. Danny Green did a great job on James Harden on defense (16 points in 19 shots for The Bearded One) but he missed all of his shots, including four open corner threes.

  • I was fascinated with Kawhi Leonard's shot chart throughout the game. Leonard missed close shots he typically makes and could not hit from outside but was unstoppable from mid-range.
    Leonard's shot chart

    A role player makes efficient shots. A star makes inefficient shots at an efficient rate. Kawhi's evolution continues.

  • Jeff Ayres was competent when Baynes had to sit because of foul trouble in the first half and I was expecting him to get some minutes in the second. Never happened because Baynes bounced back and did a great job after the break. He harassed Dwight Howard with his physicality and finished plays on offense when he had to. The Spurs' most improved player award would go to Leonard but Baynes is the runner up.

The Spurs will now face the Suns on Sunday in San Antonio before traveling to New Orleans to play against the Pelicans on the last game of the regular season.

For the opponent's perspective, visit The Dream Shake. And remember to be nice if you do.