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Spurs winning streak ends after failed comeback in Houston

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The Spurs weren’t as sharp as in recent nights but still had a chance to beat the Rockets. Unfortunately, they couldn’t close the game strong enough to complete the comeback.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs couldn’t make it four in a row. They fought until the end on the second night of a back-to-back, but lost to the Rockets 108-101. They’ll now have three days off to rest and prepare to close the year on a high note.

San Antonio was bound to have an ugly game after so many beauties. The offense, which had looked elite in recent games, sputtered at times. Both teams made it a point to get to the paint early, to good results. Then both defenses adjusted. The game got hectic, with players heaving bad shots they had settled for after switches or after wild drives. The threes were not falling in the first half for either side, and the officials were allowing a lot of contact. Houston was controlling the offensive boards to get much needed second chance opportunities while San Antonio had an uncharacteristic edge on fastbreak buckets, yet both teams barely managed to break 40 points in the first half.

Staying competitive in an ugly game takes effort. San Antonio exerted it consistently in the first two quarters but relented to start the third, like many times before. The Rockets pounced. Houston feasted on the offensive glass and made timely three-pointers to go on 12-0 run to begin the second half, taking advantage of the Spurs’ mistakes and easy misses. DeMar DeRozan tried to carry the offense and did a decent job for a while, but trading two-pointers for threes simply wasn’t a recipe for success. After dropping just 41 points in the first 24 minutes, Houston exploded for 43 in the third quarter alone. A buzzer beater from Gary Clark gave them a 15-point lead going into the final quarter, and a blowout seemed in the cards.

To their credit, the Spurs didn’t quit even though it was a SEGABABA. The bench chipped away at the deficit and then the starters came back in to close the gap. A Rudy Gay three-pointer with 3:03 to go actually gave San Antonio a one-point lead. Then the comeback fell apart. A couple of backbreaking Rocket three-pointers — a painful one coming after two offensive rebounds, then a Harden stepback — put the game away.

This will be considered a bad loss by anyone who believed the Spurs had turned the proverbial corner. The crowd that hoped the recent success meant this squad was going to cruise to the postseason — not an unreasonable position, considering how good the team has looked in December — will find dropping a winnable game against the Chris Paul-less Rockets to be disappointing.

It’s understandable to feel that way, but improvement will be a season-long process. There won’t likely be a game or stretch of games that transforms this team from playoff hopeful to dark horse contender, and that’s fine. As long as the Spurs are showing progress, even if it comes in fits and starts, there will be reasons for optimism even in losses.

Game notes

  • I loved how the Spurs got LaMarcus Aldridge deep position in the post by running extended pick and rolls with Davis Bertans as the entry passer. I much prefer those setups to straightforward post-ups, especially against a switching defense. Aldridge is hesitant to back down smaller guys for fear of getting called for fouls, so putting him in a position to just turn and shoot seems like a smart idea.
  • I don’t like it when DeRozan pulls the offense to himself to the degree he did against the Rockets, but it’s hard to argue with the results. DeMar finished with just 28 points on 24 shots but dished out eight assists while committing just one turnover. He would have scored more efficiently with a more friendly whistle, too. Still, I’d love for some of his shots to go to Rudy Gay (13 points, five assists) on nights like Saturday’s.
  • Derrick White did as good a job as anyone could have expected him to do guarding James Harden. He even contested his consecutive dagger step back threes well, even though he was called for a foul on the second one.
  • Surrendering 19 offensive rebounds is unacceptable. The Rockets got 26 points off those offensive boards, including the three-pointer that broke the parity with under two minutes to go. The effort wasn’t great, but it should be mentioned that it’s hard to rebound against the Rockets, since they force switches and take so many three-pointers, which result in long rebounds.
  • On the positive side, the threes keep falling. I’ve been bracing for some regression after a few games in which the Spurs shot ridiculously well, but it didn’t come against the Rockets. Marco Belinelli returned to earth but Davis Bertans, Rudy Gay and Bryn Forbes remain scorching hot. The Spurs shot 42 percent from outside on 24 shots, around their average.
  • Jakob Poeltl keeps climbing the backup center power rankings after posting a tidy six-point, four-rebound, two-block stat line in 16 minutes while playing good defense. We were all a little worried about him earlier in the year, but now that his confidence is back, he looks like a valuable piece. He’ll likely never have a big role as long as Aldridge is around, but he makes the most of his playing time, which is what matters.

Up next: Vs. the Nuggets on Wednesday

The Spurs will get more than one day off for the first time since Nov. 15. Then they’ll face one of the best teams in the West in San Antonio and then in Denver two days later, in a home-and-home set.