With no Victor Wembanyama against Houston, some of the excitement was sucked out of the fan base for the matchup with their in-state rivals. With talks of the San Antonio Spurs “ducking” the Rockets circulating the internet, clearly the rivalry was in full-swing, preseason or not.
San Antonio was convincing through three quarters of play, but couldn’t hold onto a 13-point lead heading into the fourth, falling to the Rockets 99-89. It was a game categorized by it’s physical play and sloppy care for the basketball by both teams. There were a combined 34 total turnovers (18 for the Spurs, and 16 for the Rockets) and a load of missed shots, as both teams shot under 40% from the field and 33% from three.
Through the first three quarters San Antonio asserted their force on the defensive end. Houston’s drivers were met by multiple Spurs defenders in the paint. Their defensive rotations were tight and led to 9 blocks from the Silver and Black. They allowed just 34 points in the paint to the Rockets, who have a number of impressive rim finishers like Amen Thompson and Alperen Sengun.
Offensively San Antonio took a “by committee” approach to running their offense. Jeremy Sochan, Cedi Osman and Keldon Johnson all took turns bringing the ball up the floor. Yet, it was the center who made the biggest playmaking impact. Zach Collins was great operating in the high post hitting cutters, and made some impressive passes out of the low post. He was dominant scoring the ball too, cooking Rockets defenders in the post left and right. Collins was a major reason the Spurs got out to an early lead with his 18 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists.
Things fell apart in the fourth quarter as both teams went to the end of their benches. The Spurs struggled to get anything going on offense, and let the Rockets get to the rim at will. They were outscored 36-13 in the final period. Cam Whitmore was particularly effective in the fourth. He finished the game with 15 points on 5-15 shooting.
- Keldon Johnson returned to preseason action and looked good, despite some rust. He was looking to get his teammates involved early and often. Drives that would have ended in Johnson forcing his way into the paint last year, instead led to kickouts to open shooters against Houston. He had 11 points and 4 assists while going 2-4 from three-point range. Defensively he was great, finding himself in the right spot at the right time, blocking a shot on one occasion and forcing a jump ball on another. He finished the game with 2 steals as well.
- The playmaking by committee approach is going to be talked about all preseason. It looked pretty good tonight. Sochan started to look more comfortable playing the “point guard” role in the third quarter. He was scoring on give and go’s, being active as a cutter, and disrupting the opposing offense at the point of attack. Sochan finished the game with 4 steals. There is still plenty of room for skepticism in his ability to be a primary playmaker for others. He has tallied just 3 assists in his two preseason games. It’s hard to make any judgements just yet, but early returns are a mixed bag.
- Osman looks like he was destined to be a Spur. He’s impacting the game with his secondary playmaking, defensive versatility and shooting. He led the team in +/- on Monday (+21,) putting up 9 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks in his 22 minutes. Osman looks primed to play a major role for this team in the ‘23-’24 season.
- Khem Birch made his first appearance in a Spurs jersey since being acquired in the Jakob Poeltl trade in February. He looked understandably rusty in his 11 minutes of play. He wasn’t the only Spur to struggle late. Julian Champagnie is having a tough start to the preseason, struggling to find his shot from deep. Champagnie went 0-7 from deep against Houston, and has shot 2-17 (11%) from three this preseason.
Next game: vs. Rockets on Wednesday
The Spurs will have a chance to bounce back at the Frost Bank Center. Gregg Popovich has seemingly confirmed that Wembanyama, Vassell and Jones will all be available to play in the rematch against Houston.