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Spurs, Kawhi Leonard edge Rockets 112-110

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Kawhi Leonard and James Harden both exploded, but it was the Spur who made the most plays when it mattered.

NBA: Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It was a titanic struggle between two Western Conference elite squads, and it was also a battle of wills between MVP candidates James Harden and Kawhi Leonard. Unfortunately for Harden and the Rockets, it was Leonard who made a statement with the key plays down the stretch to send the San Antonio Spurs to a 112-110 victory over Houston.

Leonard had 39 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks on 12-18 shooting from the field, including 4-5 from three, while the Beard was equally scintillating, racking up 39 points and 12 assists on 13-20 shooting, including 6-9 from deep. But as a tight game ran down to its final moments, the game winning sequence was summed up simply and directly by The Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen:

And the video:

There was also a closing seconds total whiff job by the officials, first missing an obvious foul on Nene following the Leonard block, and then the refs inexplicably failed to allow the Rockets to intentional foul as the final ticks ran off the clock. Despite these officiating guffaws, this was the Rockets’ game to lose after jumping out to a big early lead.

Houston was up 39-23 after a first period in which the Beard went 6-7 from the field for 18 points and 6 assists. They continued to mostly lead by double digits until an 11-0 run by the Spurs halfway through the third period turned it into a brand new contest, which allowed for Leonard’s heroics later on after a perfect storm of Houston misfortune.

First, the Rockets’ bench was mostly awful the entire game. They finished only being outscored 34-28, but were generally outplayed for most of the night. Lou Williams and Sam Dekker shot a combined 2-15, and Williams, in particular, really looked to be pressing. Eric Gordon did manage to finish with 12 points, but he was just 2-7 from beyond the arc and had just 4 points through the first three periods.

The Rockets also lost Ryan Anderson in the second half due to back tightness, and his absence really had an effect on the offensive flow. We’ve seen this before this year when Anderson has missed some time, the Rockets’ offense simply doesn’t run as smoothly. What his presence and long-range threat from the four means to the offensive spacing can’t be understated. Anderson wasn’t having a particularly great game, but as a guy who can get white hot at literally a moment’s notice and must be accounted for at all times, his absence was definitely felt by Houston.

Our beloved MVBeard struggled down the stretch as well. He was just 1-5 shooting in the decisive fourth period and was completely shown up in crunch time by Leonard, who had 17 of his points in the final frame. Leonard officially staked his claim in the MVP race at Harden’s expense tonight, though one game makes not a full-season award. Harden still has the edge in my book, but if Leonard keeps this up over the season’s final month, all bets are off.

Combine those factors with some sketch officiating jobs, and you have the Rockets heading back to H-town after falling to 1-3 in the season series against the Spurs. All four games have been extremely close.

It was a tough loss for sure, but for the sake of keeping things in perspective, this is an extremely tough schedule stretch for the Rockets, as they’ve gone 2-1 against the Spurs, Grizzlies and Clippers, with two of those games on the road, and the Spurs are hot, currently riding an 8-game win streak.

The Rockets now must regather themselves for a Wednesday night game at home against a Utah Jazz team that they match up poorly against.

Also, in case you somehow needed a reminder, Patrick Beverley is an animal. 11 points and another 10 rebounds from the guard spot. He also would have been the fourth quarter hero for the Rockets had Leonard not gone Super Claw. Que sera sera...