Well, I've got to say I'm pleasantly surprised.
Several things were stacked against the Spurs going into this game. They were on a SEGABABA while the Rockets had been home, resting and preparing since their 101-99 win in San Antonio on Wednesday. Also, it would be the first time all season the Spurs would have their full starting lineup active, and one would understand if the quintet needed a few runs together to get the kinks out.
Nevertheless, the Spurs came away with the win to stay perfect on the road, now 5-0 on the year, taking the lead for good late in the first quarter and comfortably holding the home side at Kawhi Leonard's arm's length the rest of the way. Eric Gordon made it interesting at the very end with a couple of bombs, and the Rockets had a chance to cut it to a one-possession margin with a minute to go, but missed four consecutive three-point tries before the Spurs finally secured a rebound and nailed their free throws to eke it out.
The game proved to be quite the contrast in styles. Both sides were sluggish early on, but once the benches got involved, with Patty Mills subbing for a tentative Tony Parker, room opened up on the court and the visitors started attacking the basket mercilessly. Leonard had three driving layups and Manu Ginobili, Jonathon Simmons and David Lee all followed with acrobatic finishes inside. Houston, meanwhile, were content to bomb away from outside. The Spurs are usually pretty good about denying three-point attempts, but the Rockets, with James Harden quarterbacking Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun offense found open shots again and again, squeezing off 10 tries from downtown in the first quarter alone. The Spurs were fortunate that Trevor Ariza was cold early and that Corey Brewer was Corey Brewer. Houston made just three of those 10 attempts, but one of those was a prayer from Harden at the buzzer, and the Spurs led just 26-22 after one despite out-shooting their rivals 54.5 percent to 31.5 percent.
The second quarter was more of the same, a rough start for both teams early, and then they heated up late. Leonard had a cooled down after scoring 10 in the first and had a couple of ugly forces and not much was going on, but then Parker found his legs during his second shift and scored on a couple of trips inside the paint. Harden apparently figured out the Spurs' pick-and-roll coverage scheme while on the bench because when he returned he found Clint Capela for three easy lobs against the statuesque Pau Gasol. Ginobili checked back in and bought the Spurs some room, finding LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills for open jumpers, but the Rockets were still hanging around, down 49-40 at half.
The shooting disparity was immense. The Spurs had 26 points in the paint in the first half alone while the Rockets were only 4-of-20 from downtown, but Houston was able to stay in the game solely due to their offensive rebounding. Capela was a monster in that respect and the Rockets had 10 second chance points to San Antonio's two. All those bricks from deep made for some long rebounds and too often the Spurs were scrambling to contest those shots and didn't have the numbers to come up with loose balls.
Neither side needed to hit the snooze alarm to get going in the second half. Parker had his best quarter of the young season, with a driving layup, a beautiful pump-fake and floater at the end of the shot clock against Capela and a pair of free-throws, along with a couple of helpers. Aldridge and Gasol finally got going too, scoring 13 points between them and hitting a few mid-range shots. For the first time all year, Leonard was free to just chill out as a decoy on the floor and watch the other guys do their thing. Houston kept firing away from outside, only now they finally started dropping in, with Gordon nailing three of them and Ariza two, but Ginobili lengthened the lead for the Spurs with a twisting, double-pump driving layup and then two high-degree-of-difficulty threes of his own. The Spurs out-shot Houston 65 percent to 45 percent in the quarter, but only won on the scoreboard 33-30, which made for a 82-70 game going into the fourth still dicey.
They held on, barely. Leonard scored eight of his team-high 20 in the fourth and they got just enough from everyone else to scrape together 20 points in the period before the clinching freebies. They were able to withstand the "Morey-ball" onslaught of Houston's 47 three-point attempts. They won because graybeards Parker and Ginobili both had their best games of the season and because they didn't beat themselves with too many sloppy turnovers or dumb fouls. Harden still got his usual triple-double (25-11-13), but he shot 7-of-18 and made just 2-of-9 from outside while giving the ball away seven times.
In sum the Spurs played a smart, veteran, professional road game in what was their second most impressive performance of the season, behind only the shocking blowout in the opener at Golden State. Parker's play was especially encouraging and Danny Green's presence was felt on both ends, though the Rockets seemed to be more aware of him than his own teammates were at times. Hopefully everyone will stay healthy for a stretch here and the team can start gaining traction with some semblance of a workable rotation. I'm still hopeful that they'll start figuring out a way to generate more three-point looks of their own. Not 47, maybe, but half that at least would be nice.
Odds and ends:
The Rockets get a lot of flak for their often lazy defense, but they deserve credit for the way they worked to run the Spurs off the three-point line in the game. It cost them some layups, but baby steps.
With the #fullsquad back for the first time all year, Simmons got the minutes as the fourth wing and Kyle Anderson was a DNP-CD. Who knows if giving Simmons a chance to play in his home town contributed to Pop's decision, but it turned out to be the right call. Simmons canned a couple of mid-range shots for the first time since the Warriors game, I think.
Davis Bertans was also a DNP-CD and Nicolas Laprovittola wasn't even active.
Spurs wound up winning the points-in-the-paint battle 48-34 despite being outscored on second-chance points 19-6. You don't see a combo like that too often.
It seemed like the bench had a strong game, but they were actually outscored 40-34 thanks to Gordon's game-high 27. The starters played quite a bit for a SEGABABA, especially the front court.
Heaven help me, I thought Lee was really good today. He even had a couple of blocks. Game-high plus-14, too.
Up Next: Monday Vs. Miami Heat (2-6)
The Heat have lost four on the trot and are well on their way to being the wretched tankapalooza candidates I figured they'd be. Utah beat them on the road easily Saturday night, with Stampler fantasy team fifth-round steal Gordon Hayward scoring 25. You'll recall the Spurs handed them a home "L" on a SEGABABA a couple weeks back. Leonard led the way with 27 in that one, with Gasol adding 20 to offset 27 from Hassan Whiteside and 25 from Goran Dragic. The adorable Slovenian missed the Jazz game with a sprained ankle, so his availability against the Spurs is in doubt. If he can't go, pretty much the only reason to watch is because Miami has some guy named "McGruder."
An explosive scorer, no doubt.