9-7. So here the Rockets are in hotly debated territory - sitting, for now, in a playoff position at 8th in the Western Conference. But let's talk about the game and worry about managing expectations of futility later.
This game started extremely well for the Rockets. The team was burying shots in the first quarter and the Spurs, without Tim Duncan (resting as perhaps Luis Scola should sometimes be rested?), looked lost. The Popovich called a time out, and in his usual fashion, asserted order. His adjustment? Run everything off Parker driving to the the rim off an (often moving) pick. This worked well, so the Rockets, after burning San Antonio with a fast start, led by only 6 after the first quarter.
In the first quarter both Martin and Scola looked dangerous, with Martin seeming to begin a rediscovery of a kind of basketball he once knew. a kind of hoops that involves quick drives, strong finishes and no whistles. No whistles blown no matter that he's actually, truly, really, genuinely, hacked whilst shooting. Encouragingly though, Martin is, in truth, silly fast and can score off most drives, as he proved with 25pts in 34 minutes with only 4 free throws attempted.
Scola hit jumpers and rebounded misses until McHale again made the increasingly ridiculous suggestion that he play center. Scola will do as requested, but no one except the opponent will enjoy it.
Also in this game Samuel Dalembert apprised Dejuan Blair of a new reality - that he would not be operating and scoring under the basket with The Bear on patrol. Dalembert did this by means of viciously swatting shots into the seats on 6 (and should have been 7) occasions. Blair is strong, but Dalembert is just as strong and about 6 inches taller. This matters.
The second quarter saw the Rockets cool off, but it also saw the bench come back to life. This was a welcome event as Courtney Lee showed that the incredible lift on his jumper had been restored. Goran Dragic (not Groan Tragic) made several clever drives to the basket. Patrick Patterson continued the slow process of shaking the rust off his game. Jordan Hill demonstrated that its tough to get over the flu.
Unfortunately Tony Parker simply drove the lane and flipped in rainbow runners or passed to Tiago Splitter all too often and the Rockets led by only 6, after seeming the better team throughout the half. The Rockets, alas, ignored my suggestion to dole out hard fouls (nothing nasty) to Parker as a means of discouraging his romps through the lane. I honestly think that the Parkakaeet chirps far less when bashed around a bit.
The second half unfolded with some fairly sloppy basketball. Parker continued to operate seemingly unopposed, but fortunately was apparently so fatigued that he only played 34 minutes tonight, while still scoring 24 and handing out 13 assists.
The story for the Rockets in the second half was that Dragic and Patterson continued to play well, and Kyle Lowry continued to play a lot. The third quarter saw San Antonio slice the lead to 2 points, with Parker scoring and dishing to Splitter. Dalembert would typically shift to attempt a block on Parker, and Parker replied by sliding the ball to Splitter for an easy bucket. It is great to have a true shot-blocking center, but the knock on Dalembert appears to be true. He will try to block everything, rather than simply making it tough for a players he's not guarding to score, and staying with his own cover.
The fourth quarter was in some sense a duel between Parker and Lowry. Kyle Lowry won. He didn't have a monster game (14pts 8 ast, 5 rbd), but between him Lee, and Dragic they sealed the deal with clutch shooting as the clock ran down. The Spurs made it close, but the Rockets were the team who hit the clutch shots, and got the tough stops in the 4th. Dragic was especially important tonight sinking two key buzzer-beaters on difficult shots, one with time running down in the 4th. Sometimes those baskets are the margin of victory.
Commenters may say the Rockets never make the big shot or close out tight games, but you saw it tonight.
Now for Bullet Points - The Lazy Man's Friend (tm)
- Kyle Lowry is an emergent star. He's held on to his gains from last season so far, and has added more firepower to his offense, making his already stout defense worth all the more. His range is now apparently unlimited, and my only worry is that he's playing about 40 minutes a night.
- Lowry, like Martin, isn't given anything on his drives right now. Why are players who once drew fouls as part of their game being punished? It's not like they were cheating before,and they didn't do steroids like MLB's MVPs typically do, for example. Why the hate? Is it because the refs didn't like how things were before? Whose fault was it they blew the whistle so many times? Did Martin, Lowry or Scola blow the whistle? Did they call their own fouls like pick up ball, or did the refs do that? It's ridiculous seeing Lowry get mauled on drives, go skidding out of bounds and nothing. That's a guy getting hacked while trying to score, not a Martin or Durant "duck into contact". It's one thing to no longer call touch fouls and silly contact, its another to single players out and not call fouls that have always been called in the NBA. (BTW Durant is still getting that call, as are Kobe and Wade - the more things change...)
- How slow has Patterson's recovery been? How rusty has he looked? Patterson missed an uncontested dunk tonight. This from a guy whose dunking reminded me of first year Carl Landry in 2010-11. Whatever is ailing him isn't healed yet. Maybe he needs some rest to recover? P2 also let Matt Bonner drift around the 3pt line all too often, forgetting that you really do want Bonner to attempt to play inside, rather than live where he loves it, at the top of the arc.
- In a season with effectively no practices, players must be worked into form in games. If the benchies don't ever play, or ever practice, they will get worse. It becomes a vicious cycle. Every game isn't do or die, especially with this bizarre schedule and essentially guaranteed schedule losses like never before. It is certain that the Rockets need to bank every win at home and perhaps McHale will run the bench more on the road. We'll see, but I'm skeptical. I don't know, but this is the first game in a while that the starters didn't all approach or surpass 40 minutes. It worked out well in the end, better than a gassed Scola bonking flat jumpers off the rim, anyway. Seriously though, the starters will collapse at 40 minutes a game when playing 6 games in 8 nights and the like.
- Why keep Jeff Adrien around when the biggest need right now is backup center? Greg Smith is a big body and a legitimate center at RGV. He has 6 fouls just like Adrien, and perhaps won't use more than one per minute. Why not use Hill at both PF and Center? Hill and Dalembert could be an effective combination and put a ton of defense on the court as I think Hill is a generally bad defender at center, and a pretty good one at PF, as he's very mobile and can go outside with shooting PFs.
- Budinger has joined Terrence Williams on a milk carton. Thabeet isn't even on NORAD's radar and Google Earth lost him weeks ago. Jonny Flynn has rejoined The Little People, and is off making wonderful new shoes for deserving children most nights.(Sorry Jonny - thanks Laddy!) I'm not sure what McHale wants, but the Rockets really need to use about 10 players a night. What's the downside? We keep our lottery protected pick from NJ and the Knicks get the 6th pick in the draft?
- The Rockets won this one without raining devastation on their opponent in the form of three pointers, going 6-22 (27%) from beyond the arc. Despite the clanking cannonades they managed to shoot 56% overall. A win without three pointers falling is an excellent sign.
This was a solid win for the Rockets in a tight game with a team that manages to be good no matter who they run out on the court. No Duncan, no Manu and the Spurs played much better against the Rockets than they did at full strength at Toyota Center in December. What does it all mean? It means this season is weird.