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Houston Rockets vs. San Antonio Spurs game preview

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NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After getting back on the winning track over the Dallas Mavericks last night, the Rockets now return home for one game against the San Antonio Spurs.

The last time the San Antonio Spurs didn’t win 50 games in a season, it was the 1998-99 lockout season in which there were only 50 games. The Spurs’ got some consolation, winning their first NBA title. Even in 2011-12, when there were only 66 games, the Spurs won 50 games. It’s more inclusive to say that the Spurs haven’t been off a 50-win pace since 1996-97, when they successfully tanked for Tim Duncan and changed their franchise forever.

The Spurs are used to success, even when things don’t go perfectly. For years, Gregg Popovich and his band of genius assistant coaches have rested players in big games and played unproven youngsters lots of minutes in important matchups.

And they kept winning. Year after year after year. It’s easy to forget, but the dominance of the Warriors last season overshadowed a 67-win year for the Spurs. They won the Southwest Division for the sixth time in seven years. They were a (dirty?) Zaza Pachulia closeout last year from going up 1-0 in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors and switching homecourt in their favor.

If this reads like a Spurs eulogy, it isn’t meant to be. Here’s the simple fact for San Antonio: they are one player away from being basically that same 67-win team. That player isn’t some mythical player, nor did he bolt for the Warriors in the offseason. He’s on the Spurs’ roster. And he’s coming back Thursday.

So what if the Spurs, at 37-19, are four losses away from their first sub-50 win season in two decades? So what if they have the hardest schedule remaining? So what if they have to play Houston or Golden State in the first round?

Don’t get it twisted. The Spurs aren’t missing the playoffs. They’re going to go into the postseason on a tear, and they’re going to be terrifying. I still think they’ll win 50 games, mostly because I barely remember what it’s like to see them not win 50.

Admittedly, that task will be difficult tonight, where the Spurs will be missing Rockets killers LaMarcus Aldridge and Manu Ginobili.

Obviously, the Rockets have to stay on their toes, as the Spurs have played (and won) plenty of games without their best players over the years. Usually, it’s a win-win proposition for Pop and the squad. Either they pull off an incredible upset and give their players confidence, or they lose but make their opponents sweat. There are no moral victories in the standings, but they absolutely exist in the minds of players and the Spurs usually get a bunch of those kinds of wins, too.

For Houston, they’re hoping to get two home wins before heading back on the road to face three desperate Western Conference teams in New Orleans, Minnesota, and Portland. Tonight, Houston will probably have James Harden back, but it will be interesting to see how MDA and co. play this one with the added cushion of Golden State’s loss to Minnesota. Maybe they will sit him again.

Tip-off is at 7pm CT on ESPN