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Spurs strike late to beat shorthanded Rockets

The Spurs couldn’t take control of the game early on, but a strong fourth quarter was all they needed to put down a severely depleted Rockets team.

NBA: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

After a surprising loss on Thursday against a Houston team with something to prove following James Harden’s trade, the Spurs had their revenge. A strong fourth quarter was enough for San Antonio to take down the Rockets 103-91.

From the start, it seemed the Spurs were taking this game seriously, making a couple of adjustments. DeMar DeRozan, largely passive in the previous matchup, was in attack mode early on and Christian Wood was guarded by a perimeter player and not LaMarcus Aldridge. Neither tweak proved particularly effective, as Wood still got free or drew help and made the right pass against an unfocused San Antonio defense while Houston’s starters did a good job early on of containing most of the Spurs’ scoring threats, but it was good to see the coaching staff making tactical changes instead of relying solely on depth and talent against a severely undermanned opponent.

Hot outside shooting fueled a strong start by the Rockets and sustained them for most of the first half, but trouble started to appear for the visitors when their starters needed a break, as their second unit consisted of the recently arrived Rodions Kurucs, the offensively-challenged David Nwaba and rookie Kenyon Martin Jr. As the deficit neared double digits the Spurs started chipping away, first with the help of a second unit that was bigger and more disciplined than Houston’s and then with a solid effort from the starters later in the second quarter. If not for a buzzer-beater by a red-hot Damon Jones, the score would have been even at the half.

As expected, the deeper Spurs made a push in the third quarter. Wood single-handedly held them off for a while, but eventually San Antonio claimed the lead. Unfortunately, the three-pointers were not falling for the Silver and Black just when they needed them to create separation. Both teams went back and forth on what was a very sloppy stretch, with the Rockets managing enough scoring to stay in the game despite dealing with turnover issues and an almost crippling lack of shot creation. Houston even reclaimed the lead for a while before two long balls from Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray put San Antonio back in control heading into the final period.

As brave as Houston’s attempt to steal yet another severely shorthanded game from the Spurs was, it was also doomed to fail. The Rockets refused to let go completely, but the Spurs kept them at arm’s length for most of the fourth quarter. Gregg Popovich even kept Jakob Poeltl on the court over Aldridge to give the team a better defensive presence inside, which worked. Slowly but surely the lead grew to double digits as Houston struggled to find a reliable source of scoring while San Antonio, though never looking particularly sharp, had no problem putting points on the board. There was no suspense late or any chance of an upset, as the Spurs cruised to a comfortable win.

Game notes

  • DeMar DeRozan once again had one more shot than he had points against the Rockets, but this night he pulled the trigger 25 times instead of just 14. Ideally DeRozan would find a better balance between deferring too much early and chucking inefficiently, but he struggled to do that against Houston. He also seemed annoyed at calls a lot during the past two games and got a technical in this one. Hopefully he’ll regain his form against the next opponent.
  • Is it fair to be worried about Aldridge? He missed a lot of time with injury and didn’t really have a proper training camp to learn the team’s new style of play, so it’s tempting to give him a pass, but he’s been bad on both ends. Pop went with Poeltl (who’d been having a slow start of his own this season) to close the game, and I was relieved. Jakob had his best game of the season against a Rockets team that didn’t have a back up center and earned those minutes, but Aldridge is supposed to be a big piece of the puzzle this year and it’s not a good sign that the team looks significantly better when he’s off the floor.
  • The Spurs had their lowest assist total of the season. It’s not too surprising since DeRozan was in scoring mode and it was tempting to just drive all the way to the bucket on a Rockets defense that often lacked rim protection There’s also the fact that the threes weren’t falling for most of the game, so that might have skewed the numbers. At least the turnovers weren’t too high despite the offense not looking sharp. Houston had around the same amount of assists but also 10 more turnovers, so maybe just this time we give the Spurs a pass since it was such an ugly game.
  • Dejounte Murray had a double-double with points and rebounds. He also made a couple of threes and had some good defensive plays. Considering that Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson were merely decent and combined for just 19 points, the starters needed Murray to be aggressive and he delivered. Murray still has a lot of room to grow, but he has undoubtedly made a leap this season.
  • The bench outscored Houston’s by a significant margin but, apart from Poeltl, wasn’t great. Patty Mills and Rudy Gay weren’t all that efficient and Devin Vassell, despite still showing immense potential on defense, continued to struggle with his outside shot, missing his three long-rang attempts (he’s made just one from beyond the arc in the past five games). Their combined work was enough against a depleted Rockets’ second unit and it would be unfair to single them out when pretty much everyone struggled, but the Spurs will need more from the bench going forward.
  • The Rockets could be fun at full strength. A John Wall, Victor Oladipo, Danuel House, P.J. Tucker, Christian Wood starting lineup is solid and they can get minutes from DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Gordon, plus other guys like Ben MacLemore, David Nwaba, Mason Jones and Jae’Sean Tate —who was awful on Saturday but great on Thursday. Trading Tucker and Gordon makes sense, but if they keep them, the playoffs could be a real possibility for Houston.

Next game: @ Trail Blazer on Monday

The Blazers recently lost Jusuf Nurkic to injury and will be starting Enes Kanter, which means the Spurs should attack the rim. On the other end, containing Lillard and McCollum will surely be a challenge, but if San Antonio can do it, a win in Portland is not out of the question.