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Spurs win small-ball battle with Rockets

The Spurs took the first of four meetings against their cold-shooting I-10 rivals, 96-89.

NBA: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

The rivalry between Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets and the post-Big Three Spurs has always felt more philosophical than anything else, two opposing currents meeting in a brackish clash of styles. On one side: the simple but proven application of basketball math through a singular pursuit of three-pointers, free throws, and shots at the rim. On the other: a system built on size and austerity. What the games have occasionally lacked in aesthetics they’ve more than made up for with the intrigue of seeing whether one approach rigidly overwhelms the other, or if they meet somewhere in the middle.

Both sides waded into Saturday night’s maelstrom short-handed. The Spurs were down five rotation players, including Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay, who both missed Wednesday’s game in Miami, and Jakob Poeltl, who turned his ankle in the loss to the Heat. And while the slumping Rockets welcomed Eric Gordon back, they were still without Nene (calf), Brandon Knight (knee), and Carmelo Anthony (“illness”), which put pressure on an already-thin group on the tail end of a five-game road trip. The result was a slog, with the two combining for 56 free-throw attempts, 25 total minutes for Isaiah Hartenstein and Chimezie Metu, and a glacial 91.9 pace.

Had the Rockets been able to find the touch from deep or diverted from their script at all, this recap might read differently. Since they made just 9 of their 41 attempts, we’re left giddily focusing on the pros from San Antonio’s 96-89 win, such as their ability to adapt to Houston’s extreme brand of small-ball and a breakout performance from Derrick White.

White stumbled in his season debut against the Heat, going scoreless with three assists in 16 shaky minutes. The contrast was night and day against Houston, as the combo guard got the start again and showcased the same poise and playmaking that made him a Summer League standout. Only this time, it wasn’t anonymous roster longshots he was attacking off the dribble but Chris Paul and Clint Capela.

“He’s a heady kid,” said Pop after the game. “He just sees the floor really well. He’s got a great pace about him and he can shoot the three. He’s just feeling, probably, a little tentative in that regard, I would guess. He did make one for sure, but he keeps control of what’s going on out there pretty well for such a young guy who has played so little.”

White saw the floor for just 139 minutes last season, mostly in garbage time. He played 30 on Saturday, finishing with 14 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and a game-high 8 assists.

Happy to give up touches and allow his new teammate to settle in was DeMar DeRozan, who had a season-low 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting, but chipped in with a team-high 11 rebounds. He spoke to how White’s insertion forced him to make some adjustments to how he could impact the game:

“You know, when you’ve got a guy like Derrick coming back and controlling the ball, creating momentum on the offensive end, it’s up to guys like myself to find other ways to impact the game. Tonight it was rebounding. I didn’t want to give them second and third attempts to try and knock down threes. Just reading the game and trying to find other ways to impact the game.”

DeRozan’s mutability is microcosmic of a win that put many into new roles. Bryn Forbes (13 points, 5 rebounds) moved more off ball but remained involved in the offense; Quincy Pondexter (8 points) gave 15 good minutes with Dante Cunningham in foul trouble; Chimezie Metu was thrust into the rotation with Gasol and Poeltl both sidelined and bought LaMarcus Aldridge 12 precious minutes of rest. Metu looked very much like a rookie for most of it, but his bounce around the hoop and ability to switch onto guards were both, fleetingly, on display and should be skills the team can harness in the years to come.

Aldridge (27 points, 10 rebounds) was the engine that made it all work, both with his effort and versatility. He began the night battling with Capela under the basket and ended it tasked with keeping up with a small-ball Houston unit that had P.J. Tucker at the five spot for the last 6 12 minutes. The plodding 33-year-old isn’t exactly in his element guarding James Harden 24 feet away from the basket, but his timely swipe at the ball on a Harden iso with three minutes left was critical, forcing a turnover with the Spurs up 86-85. The next possession, White would drill a three, pushing the lead to four. The team never looked back.

November only gets harder from here for the 7-4 Spurs, who play 8 of their next 10 on the road and travel over 4300 miles over just 16 days. It’s the most grueling stretch of the entire schedule for San Antonio, and one that DeRozan is looking forward to as this team looks to come together:

“The beauty of the league is being able to go on the road in tough environments and really find yourself as a team... That’s the fun part about it. It shows a lot of growth when you go out on the road and pull out victories.”

If this 10-game stretch is to be something of a vision quest, then the one immediately following it will serve as a good litmus test for where the team is at a quarter of the way into the season. Fittingly, it’ll be against these same Houston Rockets.

Other notes and quotes...

An off-brand first half for the Spurs versus an off-brand start to the season for Houston

The Spurs came into Saturday best in the league in both fouls committed and turnovers. You wouldn’t have guessed it from the first two quarters, though, as they coughed the ball up 12 times and put the Rockets on the free-throw line 21 times. They tightened up at least one of those areas in the second half, ending the game with 15 turnovers.

The Rockets, meanwhile, remain a mystery. After another off shooting night, they’re now 28th in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, an essential element to what makes this D’Antoni system go. The Spurs made more threes (10) than them in less than half as many attempts (20).

Spurs showing support on Military Appreciation Night

In commemoration of Veterans Day, the Spurs were in the latest iteration of their camo-inspired City jerseys. Here’s Pop on what it meant to pay tribute to the armed forces, and the lift that those in attendance gave his team in the win.

“It’s always great. Those guys and gals give us so much. They’re competitors just like our guys are on the floor. That juice helped a lot.”

DeMar DeRozan’s halftime change of footwear

Shoutout to The Athletic’s Jabari Young for noticing DeRozan switching up his footwear for the second half, and for asking the following question: