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Spurs crush lethargic Rockets in blowout win

Houston wasn’t ready to play and the Spurs took advantage of their lack of energy to get an easy win on the road.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After a few games in which they kept the score close only to fall behind near the end, the Spurs needed a good blowout to get back on track. Fortunately, they ran into a Rockets team that played sloppy, uninspired basketball and didn’t waste the opportunity to get an easy win, dismantling Houston en route to a 134-104 victory.

At the start, it was not obvious that it was going to be such a breezy night for San Antonio. The Rockets resembled the team that beat the Spurs in their last matchup early in the game, hitting threes and making hustle plays. This time, however, their energy ran out quickly. Despite getting Jakob Poeltl into early foul trouble, they just seemed to lose their aggressiveness completely, and the Silver and Black clearly noticed. With Houston jogging back on defense, San Antonio tried to push the pace for easy buckets on the break or on secondary transition. On the other end, they essentially made it a half court battle for the home team, and the Rockets didn’t execute well at all. Later on, when the benches checked in, the difference in discipline and team chemistry was even more noticeable, and the Spurs managed to get a solid lead.

The start of the second period regained some of the hectic feel that the previous matchup between the I-10 rivals had. An unexpected duel between Doug McDermott and rookie Alperen Sengun created some hype, and the game was an up-and-down affaire for a while. Just as it happened in the opening frame, however, things would settle down soon after, with the Spurs playing better as a team than Houston, continuing to move the ball for open, assisted buckets, and controlling their opponent on the defensive end. The Rockets’ offense consisted of more individual plays, but points are points, and the threes were falling for them, which could have been a problem. Fortunately, Devin Vassell hit a couple of long balls of his own to prevent the lead from getting to single digits.

The stretches in which the game looked like a Summer League matchup continued in the second half, but just as it happened in the first two quarters, the Spurs always came out on top during the mayhem and then made hay when things slowed down. San Antonio could match Houston on the break and with individual plays, but the big difference was ball movement and execution. The Rockets oscillated between completely lost and fully disinterested in rotating for long stretches, so any action that triggered help normally resulted in a bucket for San Antonio. The Spurs, on the other hand, had a simple but effective defensive game plan — put a wing on Wood, switch most screens, and don’t overhelp — which worked well enough against an unimaginative attack.

When the dust had settled after the third quarter, the Silver and Black were up by 31 and the entire fourth quarter was garbage time, which is exactly what Gregg Popovich wanted, knowing that his team was on the first game of a back-to-back. Houston never came close to mounting a comeback, so we got to see the Juancho Hernangomez - Thaddeus Young - Jock Landale frontcourt get big minutes. It was not a game that tells us much about the Spurs, but a win is a win, and dominating an opponent who defeated them not long ago has to be considered at least a small step in the right direction.

Game notes

  • The Spurs had 38 assists. The Rockets had 21. The difference was large even before the fourth quarter, which shows how well San Antonio moved he ball and how poorly the Rockets did it.
  • With Keita Bates-Diop out on health and safety protocols, there were rotation minutes available. Instead of going for positional fit in the recently acquired Juancho Hernangomez Pop decided to go with Tre Jones, who used to get KBD’s minutes before he took them from him.T o his credit, Jones did well even on a really strange game, so he’ll likely hold on to the spot going forward.
  • The bench in general was solid. Drew Eubanks was the backup center this time, and he was productive on offense. It’s impossible to gauge his defense, because with Pop deciding to guard Wood with a wing, Eubanks was often on Je’Sean Tate. Vassell hit threes and moved the ball. Lonnie Walker IV was the worst of the bunch, but still made some plays.
  • How would Christian Wood look like on a good team? He’s obviously talented , but for long stretches, he just seem to only care about his numbers. He’s the type of player that could make a huge impact for a contender if he accepts a smaller role and plays hard, but it’s impossible to know if that version of Wood exists.

Play of the night

Doug McDermott, going top shelf!

McDermott has been attacking more recently and it’s been great to see. He can’t just be a three-point shooter for the Spurs to have a good offense and he clearly realizes that.

SVP awards

3rd place (1 point) - Keldon Johnson | 16 points, four rebounds, two steals

Johnson got his points and pulled down a few rebounds, but the more interesting part of his performance came on the defensive end. Tasked with guarding Christian Wood, he was physical against a much bigger player and he was also disruptive, as his two steals show. Johnson has been much better this year on defense than he was in the past, but he keeps improving on that end, even when he gives up inches to his matchup almost nightly and is not the type to rack up steals and blocks.

2nd place (2 points) - Jakob Poeltl | 18 points, nine rebounds, two blocks

Poeltl gets the nod for the opposite reason as Keldon. We’ve come to expect Jak to be a defensive force, but it’s been fantastic to see him grow as a scorer. Granted, the Rockets were a disaster on defense, but this was the fifth time in a row that Poeltl has scored in double digits, a streak that started after he didn’t get a single point against the Cavaliers. His newfound scoring ability, combined with his already solid passing and elite screening, have made him a true two-way player during this recent stretch.

1st place (3 points) - Dejounte Murray | 19 points, 10 assists, three steals

Murray gets the top spot so often that it’s becoming tempting to give someone else a Karl Malone MVP, just because of exhaustion. But in would simply be unfair. Dejounte is getting big numbers not because his forcing things. His turnovers are low and, asides from the occasional flashy assist, he mostly gets his dimes by running the offense. The same goes for his scoring most nights. There are small criticisms to make about Murray’s play, but for the most part, he’s as good as his stats say he is, which is why he’s the Spurs MVP on most nights.

Season leaderboard

1st - Dejounte Murray - 78pts

2nd - Derrick White - 46pts

3rd - Jakob Poeltl - 44pts

4th - Devin Vassell - 29pts

5th - Keldon Johnson - 27pts

6th - Lonnie Walker IV - 17pts

7th - Bryn Forbes - 12pts

8th - Doug McDermott - 11pts

9th - Thaddeus Young - 9pts

10th - Keita Bates-Diop - 5pts

11th - Jock Landale - 4pts

12th - Josh Primo - 3pts

13th - Drew Eubanks - 2pts

14th - Tre Jones - 1pt

Next game: vs. Grizzlies on Monday

The Spurs will have a much bigger challenge on Monday, as they take on Ja Morant’s Grizzlies on a SEGABABA.