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Spurs smother sparkless Rockets

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San Antonio performed with the pressure on against another playoff team.

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

With their postseason hopes very much on the line, the Spurs took care of business against the Rockets on Tuesday, chalking up a 123-105 victory that moved the team to 5-2 in the bubble and 32-38 overall. Now just a half game out of 8th place, the team still needs a little help from the rest of the league, but have put themselves in position to take advantage of even the slightest of slip ups from the three teams in their way.

But the game didn’t look like it would turn into a cakewalk at first. The Rockets initially controlled the action, building an early 5 point lead despite the absence of James Harden and Eric Gordon. The Spurs struggled to attack the Rockets’ small, switch-heavy defense and allowed the nominal away team to make a living at the rim and along the three point arc.

That didn’t last long, though, with the Spurs returning from a time out less than halfway through the first quarter with sharper defensive rotations and a more focused offensive attack. From that point until just under 5 minutes to go in the 4th quarter when the Spurs pulled the plug and subbed in the reserves, they outscored the Rockets by 31 points, holding the “visitors” to 37.1% shooting from the floor and a dismal 8/37 performance from deep.

The Spurs, meanwhile, got contributions from everywhere. Led by Keldon Johnson, who put up 24 points in just 25 minutes to go with 11 rebounds, 3 assists and great defense on pretty much every Rocket who saw the floor, the team’s offense more than made up for Derrick White’s first off night of the restart. Likely hindered by the bruised knee that forced him from the end of the Pelican’s game, Derrick never looked comfortable en route to 7 points on 2 of 9 shooting.

Fortunately, this wasn’t a game where the Spurs needed his offensive output. Despite Derrick’s quiet game, the Spurs still had 7 players score in double figures and Spurs not named Derrick knocked down 12/24 three pointers.

Game Notes:

  • The onslaught really began in the 2nd quarter with a pair of Dejounte Murray steals turning into 3 pointers for the good guys combined with some timely off ball movement and rim protection from Drew Eubanks to quickly build a double digit lead the Spurs never relinquished.
  • Keldon Johnson was all over the floor on both sides of the court, coming up with loose balls, switching onto ball handlers who appeared to have a clear path to the rim, picking up open shooters, cutting, grabbing boards and constantly attacking. It’s incredibly impressive how much he can impact a game without seeming to exert too much energy. He doesn’t need to have his number called a single time to put up a 20 point double-double in a must-win game in his rookie year. The revelation continues.
  • DeMar DeRozan continued his low-key approach to leading this version of the Spurs. His 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals were crucial to the result, but he continues to defer to the Spurs young guns early and often, only taking charge when he has to, a recipe that appears to be working out quite well for all involved.
  • Dejounte Murray had a decent outing, too. 11 points on 50% shooting isn’t anything to get worked up over, but his steals helped open up the game and, just as importantly, he managed 7 assists, only the 7th time he’s reached that number this season. On the other hand, he also had a pair of awful entries to Rudy Gay in the post, one of which was stolen and the other deflected out of bounds. That’s not a new problem for him, but one that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
  • The Spurs got off to poor starts in both the 3rd and 4th quarters, allowing the Rockets to shrink the lead to 13 and 14 points, respectively. But both times, they quickly righted the ship and regained control of the game. For a team that has struggled to close the door all season, both instances were concerning, but the fact that they responded well both times may mean they’re better prepared hold onto leads going forward.
  • After initially looking a bit out of sorts, Jakob Poeltl responded with a solid game, putting up 14 points on 6/7 from the floor and 12 rebounds. He clearly wasn’t quite ready for the Rockets’ super small lineup and it took him and the rest of the Spurs a little bit of time to adjust to find better ways to use the big Austrian when he was on the floor. But they eventually found it, even letting him post up in the 2nd quarter. He responded with a nice cross-court look to the opposite corner which led to a swing pass up to Lonnie Walker on the wing who nailed the three.

Maybe Jakob should post up more (against the Rockets, anyway).

  • Happy birthday, BALA, happy birthday!

Next up: @ the Jazz on Thursday

The Spurs will face the Jazz in the second of their two matchups in the bubble. The Spurs won the first as the Jazz rested almost all of their starters. The Spurs will likely need to get a 2nd win to have a shot at sneaking into the postseason.