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Spurs come through in the clutch in win over Rockets

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The Spurs once again struggled to strike early to get a comfortable win, but still got the job done late to win on the road.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

wIt’s been a theme this season for the Spurs to turn games that should have been comfortable wins into nail-biters. They did it again on Saturday in Houston by letting the Rockets erase a 13 point lead before putting them away in the final minutes to escape with a 111-106 victory to claim the season series.

Things started well for the Spurs, as they took advantage of the absence of Christian Wood to attack DeMarcus Cousins by hitting mid-range jumpers to counter the Rockets’ drop coverage. The absence of their breakout star big man also affected Houston on the other end, as Cousins mostly floated around the perimeter to allow room for Victor Oladipo and John Wall drives. The Rockets’ perimeter-heavy isolation attack was not particularly sharp early on in part thanks to some solid defense by the Spurs, who showed discipline by not overhelping. With the starters doing well and the bench holding on after a questionable initial stretch, the Silver and Black managed a six-point lead after the first.

The second quarter is typically when the Spurs play at their best, which is why it was not surprising to see them lead by as many as 12 points in the first few minutes. The Rockets initially didn’t let up but as the quarter progressed they got frustrated at the officials and seemed ready to collapse. Unfortunately, some forced shots and untimely turnovers stopped San Antonio’s momentum and a half that should have ended heavily in the Spurs’ favor wound up being close. A last-second bucket by Patty Mills put the visitors up by four when they probably could have been up by a dozen or more if they had taken advantage of the opportunities they had.

The second half somewhat mirrored the first. The Spurs seemed in control, avoiding mistakes and not panicking when their jumpers didn’t fall and the Rockets’ did. The teams mostly traded buckets early on, as the defenses that had been stout in the first two quarters faltered. Neither the Rockets nor the Spurs could take the upper hand, until San Antonio took advantage of a stretch in which Houston’s players got upset by the officiating and were unfocused enough to allow a run. After eight unanswered points, the Silver and Black seemed ready to put away their opponent, but never quite found that extra gear they needed.

Letting the Rockets hang around would prove to be a mistake. The physical defense that drew whistles earlier in the game was suddenly permitted and Houston took advantage of it. Jumpers were falling again for the home team, which erased the deficit quickly and didn’t allow any more big runs. The Rockets took the lead for the first time in the night on a Wall bucket with 3:29 to go, and the possibility of the win slipping through San Antonio’s hands seemed very real. Fortunately, these Spurs have had plenty of practice in close games and turned to their absolutely cold-blooded closer in DeMar DeRozan. After Jakob Poeltl tied the game (at the free throw line no less) at 100, the star wing made the next seven points for the Silver and Black to give the team the boost it needed to secure the victory.

The Spurs make their youth obvious in games like these, which they can’t close early, but the fact that they seem to have what it takes to come through in the clutch makes up for any concerns about their killer instinct. A few more blowouts would be nice, but for now, they’ll take any wins they can get.

Game notes

  • DeRozan has been terrific all season, but he has been especially valuable in the clutch. In the last five minutes of games in which one team has led by five points or fewer, DeMar has shot 45 percent but, most importantly, has gotten himself to the line a whopping 22 times and has converted on 20 of those opportunities. Not long ago DeRozan struggled to hit big free throws, but not anymore. The Spurs have the record they have in large part because DeMar can close games for them.
  • Dejounte Murray and Derrick White finally got to start together and while their individual performances weren’t particularly noteworthy, the fact that the Spurs outscored the Rockets by 10 points when the two shared the court is extremely encouraging. Similarly, the fact that White is willing to shoot seven threes is a good sign, even if he only made two on Saturday.
  • Jakob Poeltl was good on defense and pulled down 11 boards in what was another very solid performance. The only issue with him was that he was tentative when it came to making himself a target for passes in the pick and roll and when he had to finish at the rim. Luckily, Drew Eubanks had no such problems. The third string center took advantage of LaMarcus Aldridge’s absence to score 12 points in 16 minutes, including this vicious dunk.
  • Keldon Johnson had a mediocre game in general, but he always manages to make an impact even when he’s not scoring a lot. His physicality alone makes him valuable. Even on a down night, he got himself to the line and pulled down boards. I’ll never complain about him as long as he continues to always play hard.
  • Devin Vassell didn’t get a lot of playing time despite Lonnie Walker IV’s absence, but he made the most out of his 15 minutes. He’s still making mistakes, but he’s showing signs of being special on defense. He also shocked everyone by showing his hops on the break.
  • Patty Mills (1-for-6 from outside) wasn’t sharp, but Rudy Gay was. Gay made all three of his triples, rebounded well and even hit a couple of clutch free throws. The bench veterans continue to be a huge asset.

Next game: Vs. the Warriors on Monday

The Spurs will host Golden State for back-to-back games. The last time the two teams met, the Warriors walloped the Silver and Black. Let’s hope that this time the perimeter defense can contain Stephen Curry a little bit better.