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Spurs ground red-hot Rockets with atomic shooting late

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The Spurs tied the 1971-72 Lakers as the only franchises in NBA history to start 15-1 on the road. 

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Game 28 @Houston: Spurs 102, Rockets 100

Record: 23-5 1st in Southwest, 2nd in West Streak: W-5

Spurs-Rockets games are never boring, are they? The Spurs have been (excuse the pun) road warriors this season, but this three-game trip promised to be their toughest to date. Houston is playing as well as they have since their “Clutch City” glory days back when J.R. Wilco was a delirious fan of the Rox and Hakeem Olajuwon was patrolling the paint. That includes their 22-game winning streak with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. That includes their run to the Western Conference Finals two seasons ago. That’s how hot the Rockets have been in December, not just with their gimmicky yet foreboding offense but also with the league’s second-best defense this month per NBA.com. Basically, once Patrick Beverley returned to the lineup, they’ve been the Monstars.

They’re just so tough to play, man. It used to be that if you fell behind to these guys you could just foul Dwight Howard a bunch of times, or wait for Corey Brewer and Josh Smith to do something stupid, but those days are over. Howard and Smith are gone and Brewer is the ninth man on Mike D’Antoni’s notoriously short bench. James Harden is simply playing out of his mind these days, and the additions of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson have given them the ability to stretch the floor to obscene extremes. Everyone’s got the green light to shoot from outside —in fact they’re encouraged to— and they take nearly 40 threes a night. They attempted a record 61 last Friday against the Pelicans, nearly two-thirds of their shots coming from outside. I imagine watching film of that made Gregg Popovich nauseous.

So it was to be a battle between the league’s most prolific three-point shooting team —the Rockets came into the night with a 27-game streak of sinking at least ten triples— versus its most accurate one. The Spurs led the league in most games shooting at least 50 percent from downtown. The visitors caught a break in that Clint Capela, Houston’s best interior defender and roller to the rim would be out after breaking his fibula, so at least they’d have the advantage inside, right?

Ha-ha, nope. Nothing about this game made much sense, from the opening tip to the delirious finish. The Spurs had zero business winning it, but they’re not about to apologize for the 19-4 run over the last 4:24 in what soccer pundits would cheerfully describe “a smash-and-grab job.”

Naturally given the lengthy three-point shooting preamble above, the two squads combined to go 0-for-9 in the first quarter. Somehow the Spurs led 26-24 after the first period despite allowing 20 points in the paint. Harden had free runs to the rim on four separate occasions due to either negligent pick-and-roll coverage from Pau Gasol and Danny Green or just a total lack of resistance from David Lee. He also drew a dodgy three-shot foul on Manu Ginobili, giving him 11 first quarter points. Pop let the starters play for most of the quarter, with Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge going the distance, and Aldridge scored three straight buckets off offensive rebounds late in the period.

Ginobili finally produced the first triple of the game early in the second quarter, but the Spurs were doing little else right for most of the period. Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, a pair of second-year hustlers, were killing them on the offensive glass. Leonard was in an uncharacteristic fog and turning the ball over left and right. His jumper looked flat, too. The Rockets took 27 shots to the Spurs’ 14 in the quarter, but they continued to be ice-cold from downtown, starting the game 0-for-14 before nailing three in a row for a quick 9-0 run to trim what had been a 10-point Spurs lead to one. But Green responded with a pair of threes of his own from the left wing and the Spurs led 52-45 at half, the beneficiaries of an off night from Houston’s shooters more than anything else. Most of the Rockets’ misses were wide open but of course one of their three makes was with Green practically inside of Harden’s jersey.

It appeared as though the Spurs’ luck was going to run out late in the third quarter. Both teams grinded through the first eight minutes with their starters, neither side shooting well, but then the Rox closed with a 15-2 run. Harden simply beguiled the defense, earning an “and-1” for himself and one for Harrell and also found Nene on the roll for a slam. Then he suckered both Leonard and Jonathon Simmons for two more three-shot fouls. Meanwhile on offense Simmons and Ginobili kept passing up open threes for inexplicable reasons, turning those looks into turnovers or contested twos instead. The snowball gathered momentum quickly and a 69-63 lead became a 78-71 deficit going into the fourth quarter.

The reserves redeemed themselves early in the fourth. Ginobili got a kind bounce on a three-pointer and then buried another from the opposite wing off a curl. He then picked off Dekker and on the ensuing trip down Patty Mills swished a step-back three in Dekker’s mug and suddenly the Spurs led 80-79. The euphoria didn’t last long after that though as Houston immediately responded with a 17-2 spurt that looked for all the world like the decisive blow in the contest. It was a non-stop parade to the free-throw line, with Gordon, Anderson, Harden and Dekker all earning freebies and wouldn’t you know it, the Rockets, who came into the game 25th in free-throw shooting, nailed 24-of-27.

Houston led 96-83 with 4:24 to go and McGrady wasn’t available for the Spurs. All seemed lost. The comeback began with, of all things, a Tony Parker corner three following an Aldridge rebound of a Parker miss. Then the Spurs caught the Rockets napping in transition and Leonard fed a leaking Gasol for a breakaway dunk. Harden got what seemed like Houston’s 873rd long rebound of a missed three and shuffled it to Gordon, and while it might have been prudent to run some clock and slow things down, he couldn’t resist the siren call of a wide-open three. He bricked it and Ginobili cashed in with his third triple of the period, a huge six-point turnaround. Just like that, it was 96-91. Then Ginobili poked his hand into a Harden dribble drive and came up with the ball. He fed it to Green who pulled up for another three on the break, and it was a two-point game, 11 points sliced off a 13-point deficit in just 1:36.

Still, the comeback attempt looked to be in vain. Harden and Ariza scored on consecutive drives to the basket and Leonard continued to be lost in space, befitting a game against the Rockets. He was stripped from behind for his seventh turnover, two more than his previous career-high. Harden could’ve iced the game with one more make, but he air-balled a three as the shot clock was dwindling. The Spurs trailed 100-94 with 1:30 to go.

Leonard got two points back on free-throws, and Ginobili put his body on the line to earn a huge charging call against Ariza. The venerable sixth-man then found Green on the curl for a monster three and again, it was anyone’s game, 100-99. Leonard managed to swipe the ball away from Harden once more and looked to have been fouled on the ensuing drive to the rim, but there was no call. However, before the Spurs could even think to foul, Ariza threw his outlet pass right to Green. The Spurs dawdled for a moment before Pop called time. The inbound play was chaotic and didn’t quite go as planned —they rarely do— but eventually Ginobili had the ball and an avenue to the rim. Houston’s defenders scrambled to close it up, but he found Mills all alone on the wing.

Who could’ve seen that coming, amirite?

The bala canned it to give the Spurs their second lead of the quarter and this time they didn’t give it up. Ginobili missed both free-throws that would’ve nailed down the game, but neither Gordon nor Harden could make their last-gasp threes. The Spurs allowed 20 offensive rebounds, turned it over 19 times and didn’t defend at all like a club typically does when the opponent shoots 38 percent from the floor. San Antonio made 8-of-10 threes in the fourth quarter. The Rox made 6-of-38 for the game. It was insane. It made zero sense. It was my favorite quarter of the season.

I’m not sure if it means anything at the end of the day beyond just being a fun, memorable game in the endless slog of the regular season. It was yet another example of what Popovich pointed out afterward, that this team fights to to the bitter end (what he calls “stick-to-it-iveness”), more so, perhaps, than better teams of past years. Or maybe the takeaway here is to borrow a page from the Rockets’ playbook and shoot more threes. The guys seem pretty good at it, you know?

Up Next: @Los Angeles Clippers (21-8)

Leg two of the road trip has the Spurs visiting the Clips in a TNT game. They’ll be catching another injury break since Blake Griffin will be out after undergoing cleanup surgery on his achy right knee. They didn’t seem to miss Griffin much Tuesday night against the Nuggets, as J.J. Redick scored 27 with seven threes and Chris Paul had 16 and 15 assists in a 119-102 win. Griffin was unstoppable at the AT&T Center on Nov. 5 though, with a game-high 28 in L.A.’s 116-92 wipeout of the Spurs in these teams’ first meeting. We’ll have to see what the rotations and minutes will be like, as it’ll be the first of a back-to-back, with another game at Portland on Friday. I’m guessing Pop’s sideline interview will involve some mention/tribute to Craig Sager, whose memorial service in Georgia he attended in the morning before catching a flight to Houston in time for the game. It’s the Spurs first TNT game since Sager passed on Dec. 15 after a long battle with leukemia.