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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets

Can the Silver and Black rebound from a frustrating loss to a transitioning Rockets organization?

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

San Antonio fell short in the first leg of their mini-series with Houston on Thursday night, dropping a winnable home matchup after a five-game road trip kept them away from the AT&T Center for nearly two weeks. Despite the advantage of facing a shorthanded divisional foe one day after shipping their franchise player across conferences, the Spurs couldn’t take care of business in crunch time.

The Silver and Black received a massive boost from Keldon Johnson, who scored a career-high 29 points in 31 minutes, but it wasn’t enough to push them over the hump. And while the good guys kept most of the Rockets in check, career-backup Sterling Brown added 23 points as a spot starter, and Christian Wood torched them for 27 points and a game-high 15 rebounds on his way to a dominant double-double.

Popovich and company now a shot at redeeming themselves away from the spotlight of a nationally televised tilt, and hopefully, they’ll bring the right amount of respect in their second go-round with Houston. Victor Oladipo could suit up for the Rockets for the first time since being swapped for James Harden, and the former All-Star is likely to pose a more substantial threat than any of their third-stringers.

San Antonio Spurs (6-6) vs. Houston Rockets (4-6)

January 16, 2021 | 4:00 PM CST

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

Spurs Injuries: Quinndary Weatherspoon (Out — Knee), Derrick White (Out — Toe), Drew Eubanks (Out — COVID Protocol), Keita Bates-Diop (Out — Illness)

Rockets Injuries: Eric Gordon (Questionable — Leg), John Wall (Questionable — Knee), Victor Oladipo (Day-to-Day — Trade), Rodions Kurucs (Day-to-Day — Trade), Danuel House Jr. (Out — COVID Protocol), Brodric Thomas (Out — Ankle), Chris Clemons (Out — Achilles), Dante Exum (Out — Calf),

Playing to their Competition

The Spurs have blown a nine-point fourth-quarter lead in two of their last three outings, both of which they ultimately lost. San Antonio sputtered to the finish line behind a stagnant offense and ineffective defense and had no business losing to shorthanded Western Conference bottom feeders like the Rockets or Timberwolves.

Houston quite clearly came out with something to prove after James Harden publicly criticized his then-teammates two days ago, and they played admirably on national television. With that said, it’s still hard to believe San Antonio gave the trio of Christian Wood, Jae’Sean Tate, and Sterling Brown easy access to the basket all night.

While the Silver and Black have excuses in each instance to explain away some of their poor late-game execution, this team routinely matches the level of their competition. A few impressive wins over the Lakers and Clippers make this tendency easier to swallow, but the Spurs must be consistent regardless of the opponent.

Stopping Christian Wood

It should come as no shock that a mobile big man like Christian Wood dominated the Spurs, especially considering how his ball-handling and floor-spacing only make him a more difficult cover. LaMarcus Aldridge is still a serviceable rim-protector, but he lacks the foot-speed to keep up with Wood on the perimeter.

Jakob Poeltl may not immediately come to mind as a better option to deter Houston’s rising star, though he held Wood scoreless on two shot attempts as his primary defender. For all Poeltl’s struggles early on in the schedule, his ability to alter shots near the basket has been helpful even when he isn’t accumulating blocks.

Giving the fifth-year center a chance to prove himself against a tough assignment could end with disastrous results, though it can’t get much worse than Aldridge, who ceded 17 points to Wood on 60% shooting last time out. At the very least, this might be the push Poeltl needs to get himself back on track this season.

Limiting Second Chance Points

Although traditional box score statistics like three-pointers allowed and opponent field goal percentage might not say the Spurs played terrible defense, the context of the evening certainly does. Christian Wood, PJ Tucker, and DeMarcus Cousins headlined a rotating cast of role-players and G-Leaguers over a mostly intact San Antonio squad.

The tumultuous departure of James Harden undoubtedly lit a fire under the Rockets that fueled them to victory, but Houston was energized and made more hustle plays than San Antonio. They out-rebounded the Spurs 49-41, scored 19 second-chance points, and collected 50 points in the paint, including 16 on 66.7% shooting in the final frame alone.

Part of their fourth-quarter implosion probably has something to do with Patty Mills and LMA closing out the final six minutes of regulation. Neither vet could get anything to drop, and both left glaring holes in San Antonio’s defense. Any mixture of Lonnie Walker IV, Devin Vassell, or Poeltl might have changed the outcome, though that’s simply speculation.

For the Rockets fans’ perspective, visit The Dream Shake.

PtR’s Gamethread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.