Free throws were the key to Friday's game. The Rockets shot 53 free throws in total, but the two they needed late never came. For all the hack-a-Smith that happened the Rockets were within one point of the Spurs with 6 seconds left an the ball. As always, the game was handed over to James Harden. The beard took the ball and blew past Kawhi Leonard. The only thing left between Harden and the basket was Tim Duncan. Harden looked to finish around the Spurs defender, Duncan swiped at the ball. Duncan got a piece of the ball and finished through James' arm. It's was close call, a call that could have gone either way. As a result of the no call and the subsequent "block" resulted in a Spurs win.
A no call as time expires in a NBA game is normal, it's what is expected. The referees wants the players to decide the outcome of the game not their foul calls. The problem with that when it comes to the Rockets is that one of James Harden's greatest abilities is getting defense balance when he attacks the rim. Is Harden suppose to play his game one way for 47 minutes and abandon it for the last minute of the game? NBA history would say yes for the simple fact that referees will shallow their whistles late expect for egregious fouls.
Where does that leave the Harden and the Rockets? They can't let the game come down to one shot when they take 53 free throws. They can't let the game come down to one shot by being sloppy with the basketball and turning it over 20 times. They can't let the game come down to one shot by baling out the opposing team with silly fouls.
The Rockets entered the game on Friday with a chance to take on step closer to locking up the two seed in the Western Conference playoffs or fall as far as the sixth seed. The Spurs looked for their straight win and the Rockets spot at the two seed in the West. Houston faced the Spurs for the second time in as many games. San Antonio was without their starting center Tiago Splitter, while Rockets were still adjusting to life without Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas.
The Rockets scored the first 12 points of the game, and lead by as much as 13 in the first quarter. Houston made San Antonio look like they were wearing cement shoes when they set the pace. The Spurs simply can't keep up with the fun and gun pace of the Rockets when it's in full swing, not sure many teams can. Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones overpowered any Spur that tried to defend them in the post.
The Spurs countered with the same thing they do every night, ball movement and spacing. Where the Rockets fought every point in the paint, the Spur finished with layups. There was a clear difference in gameplay when Howard wasn't on the floor, the Spur were able to attack the rim. Houston constantly bailed out the Spurs with poor fundamentals, sloppy passes and unnecessary reaching foul.
San Antonio's bench needed to be big with the Spurs playing three games in four nights. They outscored the Rockets bench 42-33. They stepped up when two starters struggled, Tony Parker and Danny Green combined for 2 points in the game.
The I-10 rivals played to stalemate in the third quarter, that's when Gregg Popovich turned to strategy that would make James Naismith turn over in his grave for two reasons. One, because the Spurs were intentionally sending a player to the line and two because said player missed more than half of his three throws. Josh Smith was sent to the line five times in three minute period, with Smith making only three of the ten free throws attempts. The score didn't change much, the Rockets were in the lead - 73 - 72. What did happen during those three minutes was James Harden only attempted two shots and the Rockets weren't able to run their offense. The Spurs took the Rockets out of their game without any consequence since Smith couldn't make his free throws.
The Rockets lost this game at the line and in the turnover column, not because of one call.
Houston will get a chance to rebound against the Pelicans on Sunday at 6:00PM.