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Sunday March 13, 2011 0:35 AM

The Breaks Of The Game

Houston hangs tough but Spurs emerge victorious, win 115-107

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - Want to know why the statistically inclined make such a big deal about point differential and the importance of blowing out opponents?

Saturday night’s tilt between the Rockets and Spurs should tell you all you need to know.

Both teams took turns making big plays in the fourth quarter during a game that was nip-and-tuck right down to the final minute. A beneficial bounce here or a call there could potentially prove to be the difference between winning and losing. Get one of those well-timed breaks and you’re likely celebrating a win that night while the media waxes poetic about your club’s courage come crunch time. Find yourself on the wrong end, however, and you’re probably going to be left suffering the slings and arrows of an excruciating defeat while everyone questions your clutch credentials.

Such is the razor-thin line that so often separates the winners from losers during close games in the NBA. And as much as we like to assign reasons – be they tangible or of the more esoteric variety – for the ultimate outcome, the fact of the matter is that luck is often a far greater factor than we like to admit. Whether the teams involved are great, bad or somewhere in between, the end result of closely contested contests is frequently no simpler to predict than a coin flip. And it is precisely these sorts of 50-50 propositions that prompt Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey to remind us that, “Good teams don’t win close games, they avoid them.”

As you no doubt know by now, the Rockets fell to the Spurs Saturday night, 115-107. Down a mere two points with less than a minute remaining, the breaks didn’t go their way. Shots rimmed out and calls went against them. And as a result, San Antonio escaped with the win, leaving Houston to lick its wounds after surrendering a contest that was right there for the taking.

There is no balm or tonic to soothe the sting of losing such a game, especially when it would have meant so much to knock off the team with the league’s best record and especially on a day when Portland, Utah and Memphis – clubs Houston is trying to hurdle in the race for a Western Conference playoff bid – all lost. There is pain, there is anger and there is a never-ending well filled with what-ifs.

But such is life in the NBA. Ask the Miami Heat about the perils of playing close games. Sometimes you’re simply going to feel snake bit – as the Rockets surely must following back-to-back heartbreakers against the Suns and Spurs. But sooner or later, the tide will turn. It always does. You just hope it happens on your timeline.

In the meantime, however, the best thing you can do is take a deep breath, regroup, and accentuate the positive and address the weaknesses in time for another date with Phoenix Monday night. There are still five games remaining on this homestand, all of which likely need to be won for the Rockets to realistically remain in the playoff hunt. Kyle Lowry, who seems to be growing into his leadership role more and more every day with his never-say-die approach and bulldog mentality, essentially said as much after the game: “From now until the end of the season we have to win every game, that’s how I feel,” he said. “It might sound impossible but if we get on a good run we can win nine or ten in a row. We just have to go out there and play as hard as we can.”

Such a run certainly seems difficult, but Lowry would be the first to remind that there is a huge difference between accomplishing something that is impossible and something that is simply very challenging. Even in a losing effort, it’s still clear to see that the Rockets are playing their best basketball of the season. Lowry has stood at the center of it all with his lionhearted effort on both ends of the floor. Kevin Martin got back on track Saturday night with a game-high 28 points. The club’s bench has been energized by the continued strong play of Courtney Lee and the addition of Goran Dragic. And the return of a healthy Luis Scola (still day-to-day with a strained left knee after missing Houston’s last two games) would no doubt do wonders for a team that sorely misses his steadying influence and consistent production. Though time is short, there still remains an opportunity for all of these ingredients to congeal in such a way that it propels the team toward the powerful finishing kick they require.

But perhaps the best thing the Rockets can do for themselves the rest of the way is leave fewer of their remaining games to chance. Pounce on teams early and run them out of the gym. Reap the benefits of a steady stream of blowouts.

Doing such a thing is much easier said than done, of course. But the fact of the matter is this: the Rockets are going to have to perform like an elite team the rest of the way if they are to make the playoffs. Feel free to re-read Morey’s quote if you need a reminder about the defining characteristic of elite teams.

The Rockets received a bitter reminder Saturday night of the sometimes brutal consequences of leaving one’s fate in the hands of the basketball gods. But these are the breaks of the game. They can be cold, they can be callous and sometimes they can be downright catastrophic. So for those who wish to seize control of their hoops destiny, the best thing to do is simply avoid them altogether as often as possible.

QUOTES

RICK ADELMAN

Very disappointing for our team. We played very hard after the first quarter. We picked it up defensively but they made plays down the stretch. You try to team that hasn’t been on the court very much together, but they were able to stay there. A basket here, or a call here or there and… but they’re tough, they’re an excellent team.

(lineup on the floor to close the game): When we’ve gone small in the past, it’s always been with Shane at the four-spot. He was kind of our stabilizer there and I could play a big guy with him. We were trying to just open the court up and attack. We used one big on the floor as a roll guy to see what we could get out of it. But we haven’t done it that much with that group. A lot of times it was a different group we used, so it’s hard when you haven’t done that. But I give the guys credit: they worked hard, they were aggressive. The other problem we had, though, was at the other end: we couldn’t get stops because they’re used to playing with that lineup they’ve got out there with Duncan in the middle and then Parker and Ginobili – that’s tough. So you’re at just as much of a disadvantage at the other end because you have to read everything, try to switch pick-and-rolls, and they’ve got two guys who just attack the basket so hard. It’s something the team can maybe grow into but right now they did a decent job, it just wasn’t good enough.

(Dragic’s performance): I thought he was very aggressive in the first half and attacked the basket really well. It’s still going to take him some time. It’s the same thing, when you have the group we have right now, in practice you almost have to put him with the starters and put Kyle with the second group so he gets used to playing with the people he’ll play with on the court – same with Courtney.

This group is a special group as far as coming with it every day and mentally being into it. That’s why I told them: you lose a tough game like this, now Phoenix becomes even more important so we have to get ourselves revved up again and get ready to come out on Monday.

CHUCK HAYES

(On the Spurs) “They play well. They've got a nice core group. They might not be the most exciting above the rim but who cares. If you find a way to win, you can win.”

(On the loss) “It was a good game. We were right there with the best team in the league. It could have gone either way. One bounce, one loose ball, one basket, a few baskets more in their advantage and they were able to win.”

COURTNEY LEE

We fought our way all the way back toward the end of the game and positioned ourselves to be in a good spot at the end. A couple calls go different ways and a couple shots fall and it’s a different ball game.

(calls crucial?): It definitely was. The one play where I thought I was in position to tap the ball down, I guess the refs saw a foul and they called a foul then. When I did that, Kyle had the ball and we had two guys wide open for a layup so that was kind of crucial at the moment.

(On the difficulty of defending the Spurs when the Rockets went small) “It wasn't that difficult as far as the size that was out there. It was difficult in the plays they were running. They had (Tony) Parker or they had (Manu) Ginobili in high pick and rolls with (Tim) Duncan rolling and with two shooters spread on the weak side. So, it's kind of hard when you've got to stunt and then you've got shooters in the corner. So, that's what made it difficult for us.”

KEVIN MARTIN

We all know they’re a good team but we felt like we did everything we could to win the game. Both teams played great but it’s just unfortunate how certain things out of your control happen. Sometimes at the end of a game that sacrifices a team win, but I won’t go into details on that because I like my money too much.

We’re just focused on one game at a time. We have Phoenix on Monday so we’ll focus on them and we’ll go from there.

KYLE LOWRY

We have to win every game. From now until the end of the season we have to win every game, that’s how I feel. It might sound impossible but if we get on a good run we can win nine or ten in a row. We just have to go out there and play as hard as we can.

(On the loss) “They (Spurs) made some big shots. We missed some shots. It was a tough ending for us. They (Spurs) have got some clutch players that made some big shots tonight.”

(On the challenge of defending the Spurs offense) “It's very difficult. They (Spurs) understand their game. They understand who they are going to go to and they put players in situations where they're going to be successful.”

SPURS COACH GREGG POPOVICH

(On the game) “ Houston was playing the pick-and-roll to start the game and it left McDyess open and we took advantage of it. And he knocked down his open shots.”

(On the Rockets) “ Houston is a very hard team to guard. We made a lot of big stops when we needed to. I felt fortunate to get out of here with a win as Houston always gives us problems. Houston is a very tough physical team and continues to play tough all year. They do a great job.”

ANTONIO MCDYESS

(On his play in the game) “It felt good to make some shots early. I found my rhythm and it felt good. We’re happy to get the win. Houston always plays us hard. They always fight to the end.”

MANU GINOBILI

(On the game) “All the stops we couldn’t get early we were able to get at the end. We made some free throws and the game went our way. Houston is a very tough team and they are fighting for a payoff spot. Tim ( Duncan) made some big points at the end of the game. He is a great defensive presence inside. He is still a great player.”

TONY PARKER

(On the game) “It was a great win and a very physical game. We made the big stops and shots at the end. We did a good job as a team in slowing down Lowry and the Houston offense. I thought we did a great job defensively and to get a win on the road.”

NOTES

Tonight’s crowd of 18,245 marked Houston’s 10th sellout at Toyota Center in 2010-11.

Houston lost a 115-107 decision to San Antonio tonight, handing the Rockets a fourth loss in a row to the Spurs.

The Rockets dropped the battle of the boards by a slim 42-41 margin tonight. Houston has now been outrebounded in each of the last five games, going 2-3 over that span.

The Spurs set Houston’s opponent season high for first-quarter points with 36 tonight, surpassing a 35-point opening quarter by the Miami Heat at Houston (12/29/10).

Houston was whistled for a season-high 32 personal fouls tonight, surpassing its previous high of 30 at Denver (2/7/11).

The Spurs recorded 11 steals at San Antonio (11/6/10), 10 thefts in the second game with the Rockets at San Antonio (1/29/11) and another 11 steals tonight.

Kevin Martin, who had a team-high 24 points (7-10 FG, 3-5 3FG) in the first meeting at San Antonio (11/6/10), registered a game-high 28 points (9-23 FG, 7-8 FT), five assists and two steals tonight.

Courtney Lee came off the bench with 16 points (5-12 FG, 5-6 FT) a season-high seven rebounds and two steals. Lee has now averaged 12.4 points (99 TP) on 37-of-74 (.500) shooting over the last eight outings (2/26/11-3/12/11).

Kyle Lowry finished with 13 points (4-10 FG) and a game-high nine assists tonight. Lowry has reached double-figure scoring in a career-high eight consecutive outings (2/26/11-3/12/11).

Chuck Hayes grabbed 11 rebounds tonight. It gave Hayes 15 double-figure rebounding performances in 2010-11, extending his career best of games with 10 or more boards in a single season (13 in 2006-07).

Patrick Patterson matched his career best with three blocked shots tonight. He also swatted away a career-high three shots at Denver (1/3/11).

Tony Parker led eight Spurs in double-figure scoring (all five starters) with 21 points (9-20 FG) and six assists tonight. The Spurs have now had all five starters reach double-digit scoring in each of the last two outings with the Rockets (1/29/11 and 3/12/11).

Antonio McDyess posted 12 points (5-10 FG) and 12 rebounds tonight, marking his fourth double-double of the season.

Manu Ginobili recorded 19 points (5-15 FG, 3-7 3FG, 6-7 F) and three steals tonight. Ginobili has now hit at least three 3-point field goals in each of the three meeting with the Rockets this season.

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