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As Good As It Gets

March 25, 2013 12:13 am EDT

Rockets do it with defense, finally find way past Spurs in 96-95 thriller

HOUSTON - This is why you watch.

This is why you grit your teeth through the growing pains, stick it out through the seven-game losing streaks and do your best to bear the unbearable heartbreaking losses along the way. You push through the pain and persevere, and you do it all because somewhere deep within lies a nagging, persistent belief that some random Sunday in March will produce something so spectacular, so sublime and so freaking fun that all the trials and tribulations that came before will suddenly be rendered trivial in its wake.

Such is the essence of fanhood. And holy mother of James Naismith did Houston’s thrilling, heart-stopping 96-95 win over the Spurs deliver the goods.

Forget allegiances for a second if you can. No matter what side of the fence you stood on, surely it was impossible not to be transfixed by the hypnotizing hoops opera Houston and San Antonio staged Sunday night. There were Omer Asik and Tim Duncan, taking turns while conducting a master class on the art of post defense. There was Greg Smith, putting the finishing touches on his own personal poster with a vicious dunk that brought down both the house and the hammer upon the head of Tiago Splitter. There was Tony Parker, in just his second game back after a severe ankle injury that had kept him on the shelf for a couple weeks, taking over in the fourth quarter when it looked like the wise, old Spurs were going to do the inexperienced Rockets dirty once again. There was Patrick Beverley, a 6-1, 185-pound Happy Fun Ball full of boundless, crackling kinetic energy, coming up with the chase-down block that saved the Rockets’ bacon. And there, of course, was James Harden, reprising his role as the Dexter-like figure destined to forever torment San Antonio, Saran-wrapping the helpless Spurs one free throw at a time before finally unsheathing the last-second dagger that would do them in for good.

This was beautiful, riveting and breathtaking basketball. It was an absolute joy to watch. And for the Rockets, it was just the latest sign of growth for a young club desperate to show it could topple the best the NBA has to offer.

That they did it with defense merely made the win that much sweeter. Asik, as always, was the anchor and the job he did not just on Duncan but in defending San Antonio’s lethal pick-and-roll game deserves to go on his career highlight reel. The Rockets came into the game knowing they could score with the Spurs. What they had not yet proven, however, was that they could match San Antonio’s excellence on the defensive end. Asik set the tone in that regard right from the opening tip. Fittingly, his suffocating 'D' on Duncan during the game’s final possession brought a satisfying end to the proceedings as well.

“We were really struggling against the top teams before,” said Asik, who finished with 14 rebounds and three blocked shots. “This is the first time we played really hard especially on the defensive end because (the three previous games against the Spurs) they averaged (123) points against us. We knew coming into this game we needed to play better defense.”

The Rockets didn’t just play better defense; given the circumstances and the caliber of competition, they may very well have produced their finest defensive effort of the year. That amounts to real, tangible, significant growth.

And that’s why you watch, right? To see those baby steps from an up-and-coming team slowly but surely become steadier and increasingly confident. To see them rise to the challenge posed by one of the best, most experienced squads in the NBA. To see self-awareness and an acknowledgment that the key to sustained success depends upon all-out effort on both sides of the floor.

To be sure, more spills, bumps and bruises still lie in wait. But they’ll ultimately be worth it. You put up with them, even embrace them, because you know they’re part of the process. You do it all because of that lingering belief assuring you that nights like this will eventually arrive, and that irrepressible hope which whispers of something even better, even more beguiling and magical lying just ahead on the horizon.

QUOTES

KEVIN MCHALE

(On team's play) “It was a good win for us, we played hard. We got a little lead and had a little cushion, then Tony (Parker) started driving it so hard and got to the line and made a layup, got 4 free throws and all of a sudden our little cushion was gone. James (Harden) got fouled on a three pointer and made 2(free throws) and Patrick Beverley ran back and blocked that shot. That was probably the biggest play of the game for us. We came back down and James made a huge little jump shot at the free throw line. We got a lead there on that last play and I thought Patrick Beverley did a great job fighting (Manu) Ginobili over that pick and O (Omer Asik) did a great job of contesting (Tim) Duncan.”

(On Spurs' veteran play) “Well they're one day older than they were yesterday, they're not old. Like I said, we're capable of doing really good things and we're capable of doing interesting things. That was a big win for us. We had come off of beating Cleveland pretty handedly and you knew that this was going to be a completely different game. That's a real veteran team (Spurs) who’s coming down the stretch. They've got Tony Parker handling, they've got (Manu) Ginobili coming up, they've got (Tim) Duncan to go to and they've always got shooters out there. I thought we were stagnant for awhile offensively and then we got a little rhythm and got stagnant again but over it was a game that we won more on the defensive end. It wasn't a typical game where we had 118 or 120 point games.”

(On team’s progress) “I think we're getting better all the time. We're still at the stage where a lot of guys are getting more accustom to playing the minutes, the demand, the demands that those minutes present to you playing defense, playing defense through out the entire minutes you're on the floor. There's no question in my mind we're getting better defensively, that's something that we had to do. I thought tonight one of the biggest things for us was 13 turnovers. We had 18 points off of it, in the past they've run us out on our turnovers. I thought us not turning it over was huge tonight.”

(On Patrick Beverley's play) “Patrick had a good game going. (Tony) Parker was driving and getting fouled, so we went with Patrick out there to get a little more defense and then Chandler (Parsons) switched off. Again I thought one of the biggest plays of the game was Patrick running down that block – that was a phenomenal block.”

(On Patrick Beverley's tentative play the last three games) “We (coaches) all talk to him. Guys were very frank with him and said you have to play a certain style and he did. He plays his style which is aggressive.”

(On Omer Asik's defense) “We put a lot of pressure on O tonight and we tried to keep him out there every minute that Tim (Duncan) was out there. We tried to keep him on him (Duncan). We basically said we were going to guard Tim head up which is a hand full. Tim's a Hall of Fame player. As good a player that has played in this league and O took him head on. He was 7-for-18.

OMER ASIK

(on winning games on the defensive end) We were really struggling against the top teams before. This is the first time we played really hard especially on the defensive end because last three games I think they averaged like 110, 120 points against us. We knew coming into this game we needed to play better defense.

(defending the Spurs’ pick-and-roll) In the pick-and-rolls, it has to start with Tony Parker, because if he gets in the paint he can score and he can pass. It opens up everything. I didn’t think about Duncan when I went to defend pick-and-roll. I just tried to stop the ball and then think about others later.

JAMES HARDEN

(winning games with defense) We’re growing. It took us some time but usually we rely on our shots and if we’re not making shots then we kind of give up on the defensive end. These last few weeks it’s been our defensive effort that’s holding teams down defensively and then trying to get out and score transition baskets.

(on the Beverley block) I was just trying to contest the shot then I felt somebody jump over me and I saw Patrick and I said, “Oh my gosh!”

(on seeing a guy Beverley’s size make that sort of chasedown block) It’s rare. It’s very rare but Patrick is a special player. He’s athletic and plays extremely hard every possession. He brings that kind of intensity to our team.

(On the key to the win) “I don’t think we made as many shots as we wanted to, but I think that our defense stepped up at big times. That shows our maturity coming down the stretch these last couple of games and hopefully it will head into the playoffs.”

(On hitting the game winning shot) “Coach Kelvin Sampson just told me to take what is available, so I came off (and) the pull up was there. Tim Duncan was playing back the majority of the game, great shot blocker. So the shot was there. The shot that was there was the pull-up and I had confidence to go out there and shoot it.”

PATRICK BEVERLEY

(On the game) “I think first off you have to give a lot of credit to the San Antonio Spurs, they are a phenomenal team, the way they played is in and out basketball. When you look at the game, we got some key defensive stops. We played to their style of offense.”

(On his blocks) “I don’t know how the play went, I don’t know if it was James (Harden) or Chandler (Parsons), but I don’t know I thought one of them had the angle. I just came on the weak side and tried to make something happen. How that was a great block, but it got our game back.”

(On McHale calling it the play of the game) “I wouldn’t say all that, I think that game winner by James (Harden) was a pretty good play. I think we played a good defensive game and we shared the ball and we got hot at the right time and James (Harden) made some big shots. The crowd was into it, it was a great effort.”

DONATAS MOTIEJUNAS

(On how good it feels to get the win) “It was really important for us because everyone is following us. Everyone knows our situation; we’re trying to get in to the playoffs. This victory was real important for us especially against San Antonio because they are a really good team. It was really important to get this W for us and we did it and everyone was happy.”

(On the play of Patrick Beverley) “I told you, he’s our shot blocker player from now on. You know he’s bringing a lot of energy and a lot of things that we need and the team needs and that’s all I try to do and that’s how he plays. He has an opportunity, he shoots but he tries to play more for the team and that’s what I try to do.”

JEREMY LIN

(On the importance of the win) “Playoff atmosphere definitely. We had dropped three in a row to them. Tonight was just a gutsy, defensive (game). The last few games we’ve played against them, we had a 128, 115, but tonight was a lot lower I think. Omer did a great job on Tim Duncan and Pat (Patrick Beverley) gave us a huge lift off the bench, especially on a night where I really wasn’t doing much of anything. I’m glad we won.”

(On this being a playoff style game that was half court oriented) “That’s not how we are used to winning, but to be able to do it against the top team in the West, we will take that definitely.”

CHANDLER PARSONS

(On the win) “This was huge for us. They (the Spurs) are not number one for no reason. It was definitely a playoff atmosphere, sell out crowd, physical play, guys going back and forth hitting big shots and this was a good test for us going forward because they are a great team and now we’ve got a tough road ahead of us. We know that if we can beat them, we can beat anybody.”

(On team effort) “On any given night, anybody can step up. Everybody did their part and everybody played great tonight. James (Harden) hit an unbelievable shot right there at the end to seal the deal, but obviously one shot doesn’t win or lose a game, but that was a big time shot from a big time player. All of our guys are very confident and stepped up when we needed them to.”

SAN ANTONIO SPURS COACH GREGG POPOVICH

(On the final play) “He's (James Harden) a great player and he made a great play.”

(On the tempo of the game) “Some games are high scoring and some games aren't. There were no plans to make it a low or high scoring game.”

(On the Spurs play) “I think we're playing better. The last few games have been pretty good. I thought we worked hard tonight, executed pretty well. You can’t turn it over 18 times on the road. We gave (James) Harden a lot of free throws and those were a couple of things we wanted to guard against. We didn't keep him away from the line. We were probably fortunate to have an opportunity to win the game.”

(On Patrick Beverley) “I think he really hurt us. He scored about 10 points in the first half and that really hurt us. He's a tough kid, a good on ball defender and he adds something offensively too. I thought he was a factor in the game without any doubt.”

TIM DUNCAN

(On the Spurs final play) “More or less, it was the way Coach (Popovich) drew up the play. They (Rockets) defended the play well and Manu (Ginobili) wasn't open and I took the shot that was there but I got a little more air under it. The play was designed for a couple of different things.”

(On James Harden) “He's been great. Give him a lot of credit. He played well tonight. I don't think he earned 17 free throws. I think there were a couple in there that was missed calls but it is what it is. He's very aggressive and he takes shots and makes them make calls and he kept them right in the game. I think he always plays at a very steady pace and he picks and chooses his spots. Add to that a bunch of free throws down the stretch, whether they were there or not and ends up with 17 free throws in the game. That's the ball game for us.

(On Patrick Beverley's play) “He made some shots early and he's been playing pretty well. Obviously we didn't come out here and especially game plan for him but he made shots and played well.”

(On Tony Parker) “TP is getting his rhythm back, he's feeling good and obviously he's our attack guy on the floor and he is the guy we go through in the fourth quarter. He made some plays to get us back in the game and give us a chance to win it.”

DANNY GREEN

(On defending James Harden) “He's good at finding hands and arms and he reaches and will make you foul him. You pretty much have to play defense without your hands which is a very hard thing to do. He played a decent game tonight and got to the free throw line. For the most part, we did a decent job on him but he found a way along with the rest of his teammates and they did what they needed to do down the stretch to win the game. He can do many things and is effective in different ways and is a smart player. He knows if things aren't going well for him shooting wise, he's going to find a way to get to the free throw line.”

MANU GINOBILI

(On the final play) “It was a play that we've run before, which I throw it to Tim (Duncan) and I make a hard cut and if I don't get it, he plays one-on-one and that's what we did. Houston played good defense and Tim got an open look and we couldn't score. I should have taken a little more time (on the put back) but I thought I wasn't going to have enough time to go so I did like a two quick release. Now it's easy to say that I had probably two or three tenths of a second more but at the time, it's impossible. I knew we only had four seconds, so I knew the clock was about to be done.”

(On James Harden play)  “That's (going to the free throw line) been what he's been doing. Exposing any contact you have and he's been very successful doing it. Our goal was not to make him go to the free throw line more than 10 times and he went 17. On many, he's very good doing it and on others they shouldn't have happened so it’s a bit of both. He did a great job and accomplished his goals getting to the line.”

NOTES

The Rockets registered another sold out crowd of 18,245 for tonight’s game. Overall, the Rockets have 16 sellouts in 2012-13, which includes a sellout in six of the last nine outings at Toyota Center.

James Harden hit a shot with 4.5 seconds left to lift the Rockets to a 96-95 win over the Spurs tonight, moving Houston to a season-best eight games over .500 on the season (39-31).

San Antonio went 19-of-21 (.905) from the free throw line tonight, which put the Spurs over .900 from the charity stripe in all four meeting with the Rockets this season. The Spurs finished the season series with Houston at 77-of-84 (.917) from the free throw line.

The Rockets upped their mark to 5-1 on their season-long, seven-game homestand, holding opponents to just 92.5 points per game over this stretch.

James Harden finished with 29 points (6-16 FG, 2-5 3FG, 15-17 FT), nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocked shots tonight. Harden’s 15-of-17 night from the free throw line put him at 602-of-701 on the season, moving him into third all-time on the Rockets single-season list for free throw made (630 by Moses Malone in 1981-82 and 609 by Malone in 1980-81).

Omer Asik notched a game-high 14 rebounds and three blocked shots tonight. Overall, Asik now has 49 10-plus rebounding performances in 2012-13, which stands as the most double-digit rebounding games in a season since Hakeem Olajuwon had 63 back in 1993-94.

Chandler Parsons added 20 points (8-17 FG, 2-7 3FG) and eight rebounds tonight, hitting a key 3-pointer to bring the Rockets within one point at 93-92 with just 1:19 left in the contest. Parsons now has nine outings this season of at least 18 points and eight boards. He only had one such game during his rookie campaign in 2011-12.

Patrick Beverley recorded 11 points (4-6 FG, 2-3 3FG) off the bench and made one of the key plays of the game by blocking a layup attempt by Danny Green with 1:24 to go, which led to the 3-pointer by Parsons.

Donatas Motiejunas added 10 points (4-8 FG) tonight. He also netted 10 points (3-5 FG) in the prior game vs. Cleveland (3/22/13). Motiejunas will be in search of matching his season-best of 10-plus points in three consecutive games (2/23/13-3/1/13).

Tony Parker led the Spurs with 23 points (7-13 FG, 9-9 FT), seven assists and two blocks tonight. Parker recorded the first triple-double of his career with 27 points (9-18 FG, 8-9 FT), 12 boards and 12 assists earlier this season at Houston (12/10/12).

Tim Duncan recorded 17 points (7-18 FG), seven rebounds and two blocks tonight. Duncan came into this game ranked fourth in the NBA in blocks and 12th in the league in rebounds.

Kawhi Leonard chipped in with 12 points (4-8 FG, 2-5 3FG) and six rebounds tonight. Leonard recorded his 28th double-digit scoring game of the season.