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San Antonio vs. Houston, Final Score: Spurs defeat Rockets with splendid effort on both ends, 123-105

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In the 200th matchup between the franchises, Spurs assert their dominance while their preserving playoff chances.

NBA: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs
Keldon Johnson outshined his more heralded counterpart with a career game
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio utilized better shooting with a marked advantage in rebounds and assists to continue their playoff push and move to 5-2 in the bubble. Keldon Johnson enjoyed the breakout game of his young career (24 points and 11 rebounds) and DeMar DeRozan (23 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists) guided a balanced effort by the Spurs in the win. Houston still clinched a playoff spot today despite James Harden’s absence, and was led by Russell Westbrook (20 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds) and Jeff Green (17 points and 4 rebounds).

Observations

  • Derrick White and Russell Westbrook were paired against each other at the start. White tested out his balky knee early by converting a difficult layup in transition. White has mastered the nuances of halfcourt basketball, and the pick-and-roll in particular, that seemingly took Westbrook several more years to figure out. While Westbrook accumulated high assist totals via pocket passes and kickouts and still attacking the rim relentlessly earlier in his career, White appears to be just as talented and creative at passing and finishing - with far fewer turnovers and less carelessness.
  • After a meek Poeltl layup attempt that fell short inches from the rim, Sean Elliott exclaimed You have to dunk the ball . . . young guys have to finish at the rim.
  • Derrick White drew his 30th charge on a Robert Covington foray into the paint in the first half. He later incited an offensive foul with a technical given to an incensed P.J. Tucker.
  • Lonnie Walker IV continued to encounter struggles finishing at the rim, but is supremely comfortable with his shot from above the break.
  • Keldon Johnson was able to convert a difficult and-1 layup by spinning the ball off the glass like a veteran after the contact.
  • Beautiful Game Homage: Halfway through the second quarter, Jakob Poeltl drew a double-team(!) in the post, kicked it crosscourt to Murray, who delivered it to Walker IV for a majestic three.
  • Beautiful Game Homage II: Late in the third period, Poeltl found Belinelli flashing through the lane, and as the defense collapsed on him, ‘The Professional’ laced a bullet to Johnson in the quarter for a three.
  • Houston big Jeff Green seems like someone who should have maximized his talents into a more productive career.
  • DeMar DeRozan seems to be much more engaged at the defensive end - stripping Rockets players twice in the opening stanza and netting a breakaway dunk after the second one.
  • Former Spur DeMarre Carroll entered the game late in the first for Houston. It’s hard to wrap my head around how awkward his brief tenure in San Antonio was.
  • Sequence of the Game: Late in the first quarter, Drew Eubanks corralled an errant miss, executed a nifty spin dribble, and dropped it off to Johnson for a beautiful layup.
  • DeRozan seems to have found a version of himself in these bubble games that his mentor, the late Kobe Bryant seldom found after the Shaq years, combining the gifts of a gifted scoring ability with exquisite passing.
  • Houston came out, as expected, firing away from distance with three early longballs. DeRozan and White stabilized San Antonio in the halfcourt, while the team closed out on Rockets shooters better. San Antonio left the quarter up 31-25.
  • Dejounte Murray asserted his influence at the start of the second, converting a steal into a kickout to Rudy Gay for an three and another swipe into a crosscourt find to Marco Belinelli for another three - wrapped around a pull-up jumper in the lane. Belinelli played like a possessed man yearning for his last meaningful contract - pairing hot shooting with several deflections and steals. At one point, the Spurs held an 18-2 advantage in points off turnovers. DeRozan, Gay, Walker IV, Johnson, and Poeltl hovered at or near double digit scoring to reflect a balanced attack. Despite missing several layups and bunnies, the Spurs took a 66-49 lead into the half with Houston shooting an abysmal 4 for 17 from the arc.
  • After the Spurs went up briefly by 20, Westbrook led a 7-0 run to draw Houston closer. However, the active San Antonio defense along with horrid shooting by the Rockets allowed the Spurs to surge to 95-71. Johnson, in particular, made the most of his scoring opportunities created by the other Spurs wings. Houston made another 7-0 run to which Bill Land quipped “it’s like the YMCA here.” Gay emphatically closed things out the scoring with a three to make it 98-78.
  • White’s difficult stepback three late in the shot clock prevented a scoreless first four minutes for San Antonio, and the Rockets strung together a 9-3 run at the start of the fourth. Johnson paired an impressive bankshot on the run and a Manu-like lefty and-1 to push the advantage out to 19. After being pulled aside by Pop about his halfcourt execution, Murray found Johnson for that second basket, nailed a corner three of his own, and dished it to Gay for an exhilarating finish. The Spurs’ 15-0 run essentially ended the Houston’s evening. Luka Samanic recorded a block and several rebounds in the final minutes.
  • The two long-time rivals not only have shared decades of animosity and high stakes games and series, but over 30 players have donned both Spurs and Rockets jerseys. Notable ones include: Kevin Willis, Mario Elie, Robert Horry.
  • Song of the Night (for Jeph and Mark): Elton John’s “Rocket Man” - “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time / Till touch down brings me round again to find / I’m not the man they think I am at home,” which describes the resurgent Spurs during their time in the bubble so far.

The other games today affecting the Spurs bubble seeding: the Phoenix Suns take on the Philadelphia 76ers at 3:30 CT, the Boston Celtics and the Memphis Grizzlies start at 4:00 PM CT, while the Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks tip off at 5:30 PM CT.

For the Rockets fan’s perspective, please visit The Dream Shake.

The Spurs play their final Bubble Game on Thursday 5:30 CT against Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and the Utah Jazz.