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San Antonio Spurs once again methodically work way out of big hole

Spurs close game with 19-4 run as Patty Mills seals win at Houston, snapping Rockets' 10-game winning streak

Fran Blinebury

HOUSTON — As a work of art, it was less oil on canvas than something left behind when the waiter trips and sends the dinner tray splattering against the wall.

As a matter of resolve, it was forged steel.

When Patty Mills took the perfect feed from Manu Ginobili and stabbed in the 25-foot, 3-ball from out on the left wing, it was a shot that ended the Rockets’ 10-game win streak in a last gasp manner 102-100.

But it was all the other things the Spurs did to get to that final play — scrapping, hustling, battling, reaching, diving, sweating, scrounging, just not slinking off the floor — that actually took your breath away.

The Rockets are that team that can make every inhale feel heavy and laborious and never give you a chance to exhale, with their relentless style and penchant for tossing 3-points shots like they are coins into a wishing well. It takes unrelenting concentration and persistence beyond the pale to keep up with them.

Barely two weeks ago, Gregg Popovich was laying into his team for a lack of all-out effort, questioning even their professionalism and comparing them to plumbers who don’t need to be coddled or have their egos stroked to show up and do the job.

That seems to have unclogged the pipes, because the Spurs are starting to look more like the team they want to be, showing as much grit as grace.

“That was the best part of the whole game,” Popovich said. “They showed some toughness, mentality as much as physically. We went down there at the end, I think it was (13) at one point, and could have just cashed it in. But they just kept working.

“Defense got a little bit better. Physicality got better. We got a break or two. Made a couple of shots. But they never hung their heads. They kept on pushing.

“In this game it really is 48 minutes. Anything can happen in an NBA game. It takes forever. So if you’ve got guys that never stop, you got a shot all the time. I was really proud of them for that. They did a good job against a team that is just really, really difficult to guard. They and the Warriors are probably the two toughest teams to guard for all the obvious reasons, for all their personnel and the system that they have. So I was really happy with their stick-to-it-tive-ness.”

The Spurs stuck to it even when the Rockets took a 96-83 lead with 4 1/2 minutes left in the game, treating each possession at the defensive end with urgency that forced four consecutive Houston turnovers and then worked the ball on offense to get off a good shot.

“In the end it was one of those gutsy wins where we just stuck with it the whole 48 minutes,” Mills said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do the last couple of weeks, make sure that we play at a consistent level for the whole game.”

It is a new team, a different team, one playing without franchise icon Tim Duncan in the middle of the lineup for the first time in 20 years and the pieces are learning how to fit together. That didn’t stop them from reeling off 13 consecutive road wins to open the season, but it’s still a process that has a learning curve.

“Everybody in the league has the excuse at this time of the year of having new players, new pieces,” said forward David Lee, one of those newcomers. “I think we’re really starting to figure out rotations within the games and how we need to be effective. We’re ironing out defensively what we need to accomplish each and every possession.”

The Rockets team that put up a record 61 3-pointers and made a record 24 of them last week, connected on only 6 of 38 against the Spurs. Houston shot just 1-for-9 from behind the arc in the fourth quarter while the Spurs buried 8-of-10. But was about more than just makes and misses.

“There were a couple of turnovers” Popovich said. “We made a couple of shots. It just happens. I can remember being here when Tracy McGrady beat us when we were up 10 with less than a minute to go and he went wild. Some things happen and you lose. That’s basically what happened tonight for the Rockets. It wasn’t a plan. We didn’t do anything clever.”

They just kept pounding the proverbial rock. When the Rockets came apart with four turnovers in the final 90 seconds, the Spurs came together to find a way out.

The two teams have now played three games this season that went into the final minute and the Spurs are one missed layup by LaMarcus Aldridge at the horn in San Antonio from having a 3-0 sweep.

Aldridge is still trying to find a comfort zone, just recently becoming more aggressive and assertive with his game down in the low post. The new addition veteran Pau Gasol is still feeling his way along in a new offense. Yet the Spurs are 23-5 and again on heels of the Warriors for the best record in the league.

So let the last offensive possession turn into a play that was broken into more pieces than a shattered mirror. What mattered is that Ginobili glimpsed Mills out of the corner of his eye and slipped him the pass and he drilled the shot. Then when James Harden got one last try for the Rockets, Jonathon Simmons picked him up on the switch and made just enough of a contest to make a difference.

“This is a great,” Leonard said. “These are the type of games where you’ve got to come down and execute. You want to win so bad.

“We’ve been in this situation before this year, down 10, down eight. So down that stretch in that fourth quarter, it shouldn’t be tough to focus or stay in there mentally. Man, that’s when it’s fun.”

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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