Give the San Antonio Spurs credit for getting the most out of their greatest asset: Defense. The Spurs -- unable to rely on Tim Duncan for much of anything down the stretch -- put the clamps on the Rockets when it mattered most and emerged with a 101-95 victory. They forced Houston to take silly shots down the stretch, perhaps a byproduct of a young Rockets team playing its collective heart out.
Sometimes to squeeze out a win, blissful youth and exuberance are a necessary requirement. The Rockets got that from Kyle Lowry, a fight-til-the-end, do-or-die effort worthy of praise. The two step-back three-pointers proved valuable, too.
Other times, the seasoned veterans are asked to step up and lead the way. This game asked for both from the Rockets, yet in the end, all it got was Lowry. Late in the game, minus the luckiest shot of the year, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola looked lost, deflated and untrustworthy. It's a shame because prior to the late stretch, each played three fantastic quarters of basketball. But when the young Rockets needed some guidance, none could be found in their elder statesmen.
Tony Parker led the way for San Antonio with 28 points. Were it not for Goran Dragic's suffocating defense towards the end, Parker could have finished with 40 points instead. Elsewhere, the Spurs benefitted from a balanced bench effort and a solid 11/8 performance from rookie Kawhi Leonard.
Perhaps the Rockets could have benefitted from sticking with the hot hands in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. Kevin McHale drew up some good plays and made a few sneaky-good substitutions (i.e. Playing Lowry next to Dragic in overtime), but he made a key mistake in removing Patrick Patterson from the game for Luis Scola. He also neglected to play Samuel Dalembert even as Tony Parker began tearing apart the Rockets towards the end. I hope by now it's apparent to McHale that he won't get anything defensively out of Scola, especially as a center. Patterson and Dalembert were much more reasonable options for the final moments, and perhaps it would have been smart to play them together. To that point, Dalembert had only played seventeen minutes.
Houston's only three-pointers came from Kyle Lowry. The fact that they lost by just six seems a little more miraculous with that in mind.
Chandler Parsons came a few three-pointers and a late-game layup shy of another great performance. Instead, he shot 0-5 from deep and took a questionable three on a key possession late. However, the rookie managed to make his mark once again, this time in a variety of areas. He scored eight points, grabbed six rebounds, dished four assists and recorded three steals over 33 minutes.
Patterson and Jordan Hill turned in some good minutes, despite a few boneheaded plays from Hill in the third quarter. Patterson looks like he's found his bounce once again -- he rebounded the ball well and looked more assertive than in past games. His shot still needs some fine-tuning, but he's getting there. Meanwhile, Hill is looking miles more comfortable coming off the bench.
The Rockets played a great game, and to me, veteran leadership proved to be the difference. Tony Parker did what Martin and Scola couldn't. He's the best player of the three, but we needed something from Scola and Martin and didn't get much.
If you're looking to blame the referees, you've got some ammunition. The Rockets couldn't buy a call in the lane and the Spurs doubled Houston's foul count. At the same time, I thought the Spurs played very smart interior defense and gave the refs a reason to hold the whistle. That said, I wish the officials had done the same on the other end as well.
If you're looking for some alarming trends (let's hope you aren't a huge pessimist), consider the following:
A) Luis Scola's game is developing into a one-dimensional, first-half shell of what he used to be. His rebounding numbers are down, his defense is becoming useless and he hasn't broken his fourth-quarter curse. Scola is a great first-quarter player: He shows you his hand, pulls out all his stops and normally leads the Rockets in scoring to start. But late in games, Scola's jumper is his only weapon. If it falls, watch out. If it doesn't, McHale might want to look at other options.
B) Kevin Martin is driving the ball more. This is a good thing. He looks far more aggressive now than he did to open the season. Unfortunately, he isn't getting the same calls that he used to get in the lane. And these have nothing to do with the new rule changes, mind you. He's still drawing contact. -- that's the scary part. Call it bad officiating, call it a short-term issue... or call it a new strategy from the referees. We'll have to see how it develops. To be sure, without the whistle, Martin is a good scorer. And if Martin isn't a great scorer, he's a run-of-the-mill starter. We need more than run-of-the-mill from Kevin Martin to win ballgames.
There is no reason to be down on the Rockets after a gutsy performance such as this. They played great and did so in a tough environment. If you're looking to Manu Ginobili's absence as an excuse, forget it: The Spurs have won without him thus far. It was a good test for Houston and they nearly passed. Next time a game like this presents itself, the Rockets will be a little more prepared to go out and grab the win.