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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets

Can the Silver and Black unsaddle their interstate rival to keep their playoff hopes alive?

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

Every impending contest has become more imperative as the Spurs close in on the final games of their seeding schedule, and a single loss is virtually all that stands between them and the end of a historic postseason streak. San Antonio has done almost everything in their power to hang around in the Western Conference playoff picture, but the rest of the league isn’t doing them any favors.

The scorching Suns are 6-0 in Orlando, and the Blazers and Grizzlies refuse to drop in the standings despite grueling slates against a myriad of top contenders. The Silver and Black were never going to have a simple path to competing for a postseason birth, and the mathematical possibilities are endless, so I’ll leave a handy tweet from Fox Sports Southwest host Dan Weiss to explain the minutia.

All you need to know is every outing from here on out is essentially a must-win for the good guys, and though James Harden won’t suit up on Tuesday, the Rockets aren’t an opponent to underestimate. Russell Westbrook will be returning to the hardwood for Houston, and San Antonio will once again be shorthanded. Have your towels handy and practice some deep breathing techniques because Spurs=Rockets matchups rarely come without late-game dramatics.

San Antonio Spurs (31-38) vs. Houston Rockets (44-25)

August 11, 2020 | 1:00 PM CT

Watch: FSSW, NBA TV | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)

Spurs Injuries: LaMarcus Aldridge (Shoulder - Out), Trey Lyles (Appendix - Out), Bryn Forbes (Quad - Out), Tyler Zeller (Knee - Day-to-Day), Derrick White (Knee - Questionable)

Rockets Injuries: David Nwaba (Achilles - Out), Thabo Sefolosha (Personal - Out), Eric Gordon (Ankle - Out), James Harden (Rest - Out), Bruno Caboclo (Ankle - Day-to-Day), Russell Westbrook (Quad - Day-to-Day)

Protecting The Three-Point Line

The Rockets took small-ball to a new extreme when they dealt star big man Clint Capela for a return of Robert Covington and a second-round pick. Since then, Houston has jacked up nearly 50 three-pointers per game and employed Covington, Jeff Green, and P.J. Tucker as pseudo centers to fill to void left behind by Capela.

While the Rockets are on pace to take and make the second-most triples per game in NBA history, their pronounced long-range reliance has left them especially susceptible to losses on chilly nights from the beyond the arc. And if San Antonio can find a way to contain their bevy of dead eye shooters, the Spurs might have a chance to improve to 5-2 in the bubble.

Mike D’Antoni and crew are 25-1 when they shoot at least 36.8% from downtown this season, and their near-perfect record falls to 19-24 when held under that mark. Preventing Houston from heaving a hilarious amount of threes should be easier with Harden sidelined, though as Austin Rivers showed Sunday, the Beard isn’t the only Rocket capable of dropping 40 points.

Finishing What They Started

San Antonio had notable struggles closing out teams in crunch time before the pandemic-induced hiatus, and their proclivity for blowing late leads appears to have traveled with them to Orlando. The Spurs have owned a second-half cushion in every game since entering the bubble, but their opponents almost always come roaring back to close the gap.

Despite a commendable 4-2 record through six seeding games, the Silver and Black could’ve been 6-0 with a firm grasp on forcing a play-in for the final Western Conference playoff spot. An unusual Dejounte Murray defensive blunder relinquished the go-ahead bucket in an eventual loss to the Sixers, and a fourth-quarter surge from the Nuggets handed the good guys back-to-back losses.

The Spurs have pushed the tempo as of late, and their third-ranked pace (104.9) has also resulted in the fourth-highest Offensive Rating (116.3) in the NBA during the league restart. Unfortunately, while San Antonio sports an equally impressive first-half Defensive Rating (107.9) over this period, their terrible second-half Defensive Rating (119.5) only highlights their inability to put teams away.

Reining in Russell Westbrook

Although Space City will be without the services of perennial MVP candidate James Harden, having another former MVP waiting in the wings to pick up the slack certainly helps. Russell Westbrook is far from the most efficient guy in the league, and while his per-game numbers are impressive, they do little to reveal the impact his relentless competitiveness has on the outcome of a game.

Westbrook consistently lays his body on the line to make momentum-swinging hustle plays, and he has remained a nightly triple-double threat despite playing alongside another ball-dominant guard in the Beard. Tuesday will be just his second appearance sans Harden, and if the Spurs hope to slow down the Rockets, disrupting Russ will be their best bet.

The nine-time All-Star will be the only natural primary ball-handler available for Houston, and the Spurs shouldn’t be shy about throwing their best stoppers his way. Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, and Keldon Johnson have done a stellar job of locking down their defensive assignments, and Derrick White should only aid their cause if he gets cleared to play.

Replacing Derrick White

Derrick White has officially been listed as questionable for Tuesday as of me writing this preview, and if he can’t get a green light to play, the Silver and Black will ask more than a few guys to step up in his absence. Not only has the third-year guard been their most consistent source of offense throughout the restart, but his contributions on the other end of the floor have been invaluable to a defense that has battled with inconsistency all season.

San Antonio led by as many as 20 points when White was in the game, and the good guys began to flail the second after a left knee contusion forced him out of the contest. The defense and offense floundered in an attempt to match the intensity of the Pelicans, and New Orleans closed within 4 points in the final frame, though the Spurs ultimately came away with a win and ended JJ Redick’s 14-year personal playoff streak.

Dejounte Murray has mostly taken a backseat to Derrick in Orlando, but the recently extended point guard should expect to inherit a heap of ballhandling responsibilities if White isn’t healthy. And ready or not, Pop might need an outburst from Lonnie Walker IV or Keldon Johnson to replace a load of missing point production.

Don’t forget about DeMar DeRozan, either. The four-time All-Star has guided the Spurs to victory in the bubble down the stretch of some incredibly tight contests. He hasn’t disappointed fans in the six seeding games thus far, and he can’t afford to go MIA when San Antonio takes on their bitter interstate rivals.