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Game Day: Rockets At Spurs

Analysis and observations from Houston's 111-98 win over San Antonio

HOUSTON - Maybe it’s the 49er fan in James Harden that makes his blood boil every time he sees silver and black. Or perhaps the River Walk simply rubs him the wrong way. Whatever the case may be, this much is undeniable: When the San Antonio Spurs are the opponent, Harden’s eyes light up like Christmas trees (sorry, couldn’t resist) and his already superlative skills apparently ascend to otherworldly levels.

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The story was the same tonight as Houston’s All-Star shooting guard exploded for 16 fourth quarter points to help ensure his team brought home a season sweep of the Spurs in San Antonio. Harden’s brilliance capped a practically perfect night for the Rockets’ starting five which dominated the action from start to finish in Houston’s 111-98 wire-to-wire win.

“My teammates needed me, Harden said on a night when he finished with 28 points, six rebounds and six assists. “The first three quarters, I was just trying to be a facilitator, making sure the ball moved well. In the fourth quarter I just tried to be creative and make some shots.”

That he did during a remarkable fourth quarter display that saw him hit several ridiculously high degree of difficulty shots from all over the floor. His signature stretch saw him score 11 straight points for Houston, allowing the Rockets to unceremoniously put the kibosh on any and every San Antonio comeback attempt. By the time he was finished, Harden had effectively ruined Christmas in San Antonio, doing everything short of strolling into homes, stealing presents and hightailing it up to the nearest mountain, cackling all the way there.

Rest assured, however, that this result was about far more than Harden’s fourth quarter dominance. The rest of the Rockets’ starting unit was equally excellent, producing top-shelf performances across the board. Dwight Howard brought his both-ends-of-the-floor superiority to the Alamo City, stuffing the stat sheet with 15 points and 20 boards. Chandler Parsons set the tone early, scoring 14 first quarter points on his way to tallying 21 for the game to go along with six rebounds and six assists. Terrence Jones delivered perhaps his best performance as a pro on a night that saw him come through with 21 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. And all Jeremy Lin did was push the pace, pick his spots, expertly steer the ship and help shut down one of the best point guards on the planet.

On a day that prominently features a guy sporting an epic beard, it was only fitting that the hirsute Harden would steal the show. But don’t let his larceny fool you. Every Rockets starter shone tonight with a luminous splendor that would make Rudolph burn with envy. And as a result, Houston flew home from San Antonio laughing all the way once again.

OBSERVATIONS

- Consistency hasn’t exactly been the Rockets’ calling card up to this point in the season, with injuries wreaking havoc with Houston’s stability. But when the Rockets are in sync and clicking, wow, do they look good.

For the latest evidence, look no further than the masterful first quarter Houston delivered while dropping 40 points on the second-best defense in the NBA. The Rockets shot 16-of-25 from the field and 6-of-9 from beyond the arc en route to recording an effecting field goal percentage of 76 percent in the period. The ball was whipping from side-to-side, Houston’s players were flying up the floor in transition, and all the while the Spurs – those seemingly ageless and indestructible basketball cyborgs – looked absolutely powerless in their attempts to put the lid on the pyrotechnics taking place on their home floor. Perhaps the stat most indicative of Houston’s offensive perfection: the Rockets assisted on 13 of their 16 first quarter makes.

Leading the charge was the freshly shorn Chandler Parsons, who was simply scorching from long range. The 25-year-old drained four 3s in the first quarter, several of which came from well beyond the arc. Parsons finished the period with 14 points as Houston took a 15-point lead to the second quarter.

- But as they did the last time these two teams met, and as you knew they inevitably would tonight, the Spurs wasted no time worming their way back into the game. San Antonio started the second quarter by hitting eight of their first 11 shots from the field while cutting Houston’s lead down to six. The only good news for the Rockets during that stretch: none of the Spurs’ makes came from distance.

- The differential from downtown, in fact, was the real key to Houston taking a 60-51 lead into halftime. By the break, the Rockets were 8-of-13 from the 3-point line while San Antonio was just 3-of-11. And that trend continued to loom large all night. The final 3-point numbers: Houston hit 12-of-24 while the Spurs connected on just five of their 20 attempts. That’s the ball game, folks. Sometimes this sport can be pretty simple.

- While the Rockets starters were nothing short of superb this evening – every member of Houston’s starting unit was +14 or better – the team’s bench play was less than stellar, highlighting once again just how badly the team misses the injured Omer Asik. The Rockets’ reserves can put points on the board, but when Howard sits Houston’s defense often rests with him. Asik’s presence would cure most, if not all, of those ills and really take his team to another level in the process.

- Make sure you carve out a few seconds to see Omri Casspi connect with Howard on an awfully sweet alley-oop.

- Never thought I'd see the day when a healthy, in-his-prime Tony Parker would be held in check like he was by Houston tonight. San Antonio’s slithery, sublime point guard finished the game with a mere six points on 3-of-11 shooting from the field. He had just four assists and turned the ball over twice. Jeremy Lin wonderfully worked in concert with the Rockets’ bigs to keep Parker in check. Great scheme. Great execution.

- With the win, Houston’s record improves to 19-11. The Rockets return to action Thursday night when the Memphis Grizzlies invade Toyota Center.