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Game Day: Rockets At Spurs

Analysis and observations from Houston's 112-106 win over the San Antonio Spurs

HOUSTON - So who’s in for a Western Conference playoff that pits Golden State versus Oklahoma City (two games against each other already, both ended by remarkable buzzer-beaters) and the Rockets against San Antonio? After watching tonight’s breathless, manic and wild, wild Southwest Division showdown between the two I-10 rivals, only those with an aversion to beautiful, exhilarating and edge-of-your-seat basketball could respond negatively to that question.

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Houston’s heart stopping 112-106 win over the Spurs had absolutely everything one could ask for – almost as if Santa came early and stuffed the stocking of hoops fans to their breaking point. Spectacular shot-making? Check. Superstar performances? Check. Beautiful ball movement? Double check. Wild momentum swings that ensured no lead felt safe for even a second? Oh dear lord, check, check and furthermore CHECK.

If this wasn’t basketball at its very best, it surely was basketball at its most aesthetically pleasing as both teams took turns racing up and down the floor, puncturing each other’s defense with pace, precision and deft passing, all while playing with the sort of passion and intensity typically reserved for the playoffs. Nothing felt secure and anything seemed possible. The only inevitability: that no matter the path this game took, it was destined to be decided in the final minute – a predetermined reality that seemed just as certain when the Rockets held a 23-point lead in the second quarter as it did when the Spurs turned the tables and threatened to run away with things in the fourth.

The Rockets entered tonight's contest playing their best ball of the season, riding a series of blowouts into the Alamo City. But they were also well aware that their toughest test to date awaited them. Nonetheless, when Houston wasted no time reigniting its flame throwing ways while torching the nets at the start of the proceedings, it might have led some to believe that another romp could be in the offing. Chandler Parsons was red-hot once again – as were Houston’s cadre of perimeter gunners – and the Rockets’ ball-movement was positively Spurs-esque, whipping the rock from side to side, leaving San Antonio’s second-ranked defense scrambling in a wake of made 3s and fast break layups. Houston’s lead ballooned until it reached its high water mark on a Patrick Beverley triple that put the Rockets up 55-32 with 4:18 left in the second quarter.

But these are the Spurs -- of course this wasn’t going to be a blowout. On cue, Tony Parker took over to score 10 straight points and Tim Duncan joined the party in the third quarter, rampaging through the Rockets’ rapidly crumbling ramparts while bringing his club within three by the end of the third period. When Marco Belinelli began the final frame with five straight points to give San Antonio its first lead since the early stages of the evening, it looked for all the world as if basketball’s version of the Borg had fully engaged its ‘resistance is futile’ routine.

It was at that very moment that Houston’s test began in earnest. The Spurs know they can lean on their corporate knowledge when the game gets tight and every possession feels as if it's saturated with urgency and importance. The Rockets, on the other hand, are still very much in the early stages of figuring out their own formula for late-game success. What, then, would they rely upon, having found themselves in hostile territory against an elite enemy with the game on the line? That question was the essence of their exam, as it inevitably is for any team that dares to consider itself championship caliber. By now you know they passed with flying colors.

James Harden bulled his way into the paint and onto the free throw line. Terrence Jones showed off patience beyond his years, receiving a pass beneath the basket and waiting just that extra, precious beat before going up for a shot, thereby allowing his defender to fly by and open up just enough air to allow the ball free passage to the rim. Dwight Howard drained some clutch free throws and came down with an absolutely spectacular offensive rebound in the closing minutes, giving his club a desperately needed extra possession that ultimately ended with a game-tying 3 by Harden. And not to be outdone, the inimitable Beverley delivered an offensive board and put-back of his own that put his club on top for good just 25 seconds later.

The final numbers add further perspective to the kind of team effort it took for Houston to snap its seven-game losing streak in San Antonio: Harden tallied a game-high 31 points to go along with 7 rebounds and 6 assists; Parsons fought through back spasms that quite literally floored him late in the game while finishing with 25 points and 5 dimes; Jones devoured 16 monstrous rebounds. On and on it went.

This was exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat, please-may-I-have-another hoops of the highest order. It was a statement as well, made by a team that covets the kind of sustained success the Spurs have enjoyed for more than a decade. To ascend to that ethereal level, the Rockets will surely have to make many, many more. Let’s just hope, for the sake of everything that makes this sport downright heavenly at times, that they get that opportunity sometime around, say, late May on into early June.

Does best-of-21 work for everyone?

QUOTES

Rockets Head Coach Kevin McHale:

(On the ups and downs of the game…)

“Yeah, they battled back. It got scrappy and dirty, and they got really physical with us. They got a little lead, and our guys made some big plays and battled back down the stretch.”

(On how the current team compares with the team a month ago…)

“Our team is starting to get tighter; starting to get more together. We’re starting to understand what we do and how we can play off each other and help each other.”

(On Parson’s leadership…)

“His back was really bothering him. He had a big breakaway dunk late, and we just had to keep pushing and trying to attack.”

(On sloppy play in the third quarter…)

“We didn’t play well.”

(On how the physicality will play into future games against the Spurs…)

“It should be fun.”

(On his encounter with Tim Duncan at the end of second quarter…)

“I was in the coach’s box. I probably should’ve gone and sat on the other side.”

(On Having James Harden back…)

“Good. James made a big, big three. He fought hard. For the most part we moved the ball well tonight. We shot the ball and attacked. They’re a very, very good defensive team. If they can get their claws in you, they’ll slow you down.”

Rockets Guard James Harden:

(On game…)

“I’m proud of the way that we came out from the beginning. All four quarters we played great. We knew they were going to make a run. They’re a great team, especially at home. We just kept our composure. Even though we got down three in the fourth quarter, we knew it was our time to make a run. We hit a couple big shots, got some stops and made some plays.”

(On personal game…)

“I just have to have confidence. Even though I haven’t played and missed a couple games, I have to make sure I get my teammates involved and make sure that when they look at me, they know that we’re ready to win this game.”

(On taking over in crunch time…)

“That’s what I have to do. I have to. If it’s not for myself, it’s for my teammates. Just being active and being in attack mode at all times. That’s what they’re looking for me to do.”

(On if he wanted Tony Parker to take 27 shots…)

“Definitely, definitely. You get Tony Parker to put a lot of shots up, it takes away from all of their guys knocking down threes and getting us off balance. We did a great job defensively. Patrick (Beverly) did a great job, but it’s a team defensive game.”

Rockets Center Dwight Howard:

(On starting a rivalry with the Spurs…)

“Oh yeah. It’s going to be a dogfight every time we see these guys. And that’s what we want. That’s going to make us better as a team, and it’s going to make it fun for the fans to watch.”

(On the Spurs third quarter run…)

“I like the way that we came back. There were some moments when we got out of who we are, but we got back to it and we got a good win.”

(On if he wanted Tony Parker to take 27 shots…)

“I would rather somebody else score. When Tony (Parker) has it, he’s hitting the midrange shot, he’s getting to the basket, hitting floaters and making the right pass. He’s one hell of a guard.”

San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich:

(On the Spurs play down the stretch…)

“What part of down the stretch? There is a lot...one minute, four minutes. What do you want?”

(On the Spurs in the final two minutes…)

“The whole final two minutes. I don’t think I can do that for you. Can you be a little more specific? I’d be happy to answer all of your questions, but I am not going to do the whole two minutes.”

(On the explanation of the foul call on James Harden instead of Dwight Howard…)

“Their (referees) explanation was nobody saw it.”

(On Marco Belinelli…)

“He has given us a lot. He is playing very well. He obviously feels comfortable in assisting. He is finding his shots but he is also playing good defense. He is doing a good all-around job. He is fitting in more quickly than any new player I think we have ever had.”

(On the scoring swings of the game…)

“Well it’s a great lesson for us. When you play a good basketball team, you’ve got to come with passion, edge, and aggressiveness for 48 minutes. We did that for a half, so I think it was a good lesson for our guys. They got embarrassed for a whole half and in the second half their aggressiveness and attention to detail was very good. They got themselves back in the game. I couldn't have been more proud of how they played in the second half. It’s a great lesson for us. It is a great game to have early in the season.”

(On Boris Diaw having to leave game after defending Terrence Jones…)

“Well, they spread the court well. They do a great job with that. They are the best in the league at scoring, so you’ve got to have people out there that can get to him. Boris (Diaw) and Matt (Bonner) did a good job. I don't think he was the problem for us tonight. I thought their team played the way they’ve been playing, you know, really well. Especially in the first half to get the lead.”

(On the reason behind the Spurs loss in the last few minutes…)

“It is always a lot of things. It is never one thing. We turned it over a couple of times. We had some open shots. They turned it over a couple of times. They had some open shots. It went back and forth, but the big shot was Harden’s three to tie the game up. That high quadrant over there.”

(On the status of Boris Diaw’s injury…)

“His finger looked ugly when he came out of the game, but I don't really know yet. Hopefully it was just dislocated, but I don’t know.”

Spurs Forward Tim Duncan:

(On his general takeaway on swings in the game, from getting down by 23 to coming back…)

“They (Rockets) shot the ball really well in the first half. We didn’t have the right energy. We didn’t have the right intensity defensively. They shot it really, really well. They moved the ball around really well. We weren’t up in passing lanes. We weren’t doing anything. Second half came around and our intensity turned up. Obviously we hit some shots and that helped, but defensively I thought we were much more solid. We got up on people. We made them change what they were doing, made their shots tougher and gave ourselves a chance.”

(On whether it was effort or adjustments that caused the turnaround in the second half…)

“We made small adjustments, but it was more effort and focus than anything else. We don’t make huge adjustments from game-to-game. We play the way we play. If we execute, if we defend the right way, if we execute the game plan we come up with – we like the results usually. We didn’t do a good job of it the first half. On top of that they shot the ball really well. For whatever reason we weren’t up as much as we should have been.”

(On defending the Rockets with Dwight Howard on the team and all their shooters…)

“On every team that Dwight’s on it seems that focus is inside and the shooters get a lot more open looks. That’s a byproduct of having him in there and the shooters shooting the ball well obviously. It’s tough, they are tough and we’ll see what happens next time.”

Spurs Guard Manu Ginobili:

(On general takeaway from getting down by 23, then coming back and falling short…)

“That you should play like that the whole 48 minutes. We were very passive at the beginning. We saw them just moving the balls, taking threes, going to the rim. They basically did whatever they wanted to. Then in the second half we adjusted. We played more physical. We hustled more. More determination and we got back in the game. And then in good games down the stretch, a couple bounces went their way. They made their shots. We missed a couple and anything can happen. What is frustrating we got to that point where we gave them a 23 point lead. It’s pretty hard to come back from that.”

(On Marco Belinelli fitting in well pretty quickly…)

“Yeah, the last two games he was incredible. The moments where he has been on the court we were much better. The last two games he was very aggressive. He made a lot of shots. Played within the system, not forcing anything, so great job.”