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Rockets recover against Spurs 99-89

Deep Bench Leads Comeback

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs
So, nobody break 100, Ime? No, coach, no one breaks 100, just like the old days.
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

The Rockets remain undefeated in the pre-season, though it wasn’t for lack of trying to lose this game.

The Rockets felt the absence of Jalen Green, Tari Eason and the mysterious Jock Landale. The Spurs didn’t play Victor Wembanyama, as he was clearly ducking the Rockets, Devin Vassell and Tre Jones. It might have been a different game if they did, as San Antonio’s “Guards? Who needs guards?” experiment nearly worked.

If you wondered where a large-ish, mid, NBA player ended up after this off season, I have an answer for you. He’s on the Spurs. The Rockets had trouble with this large, though not Wemby large, Spurs lineup.

Here’s something to consider. It may have appeared the Spurs were running up the score on the Rockets throughout much of the game, especially in the first half. They scored 89 total points, and managed 37 in the second half, after scoring 35 in the first quarter. The Rockets defense had a bad first quarter, giving up 35, but after that? 17, 24, 13. Of course that first quarter was when the main guys were playing. Even so, a modern NBA team should win pretty much any game where the opponent doesn’t break 90. Will the Rockets do this, though?

Fans who have suffered through the past few seasons might be surprised to learn that the Rockets defense, even when not looking that great for part of tonight, was overall sound. The team may very well struggle to score points, though.

There was simply nowhere to turn to get baskets from the projected starters and rotational players early on, with the exception of Fred Van Vleet, who made a couple of threes, and some nice, reliable-looking mid-range shots.The Rockets made it rougher on themselves by shooting 69% from the free throw line on 29 attempts.

It’s conventional wisdom that NBA teams just run basic offenses in the pre-season. I certainly hope so, because the Rockets offense wasn’t up to much tonight. It’s fair to say that the team missed Jalen Green. Even the somewhat shaky scoring of Green so far.

Alperen Sengun had a rough night, as a large, physical, San Antonio team simply packed the paint and dared the Rockets to beat them from outside. The Rockets really do need to have at least two to three real shooting threats on the court at all times, and I’m simply not sure if they will. We might see a lot more of an almost college-like paint packing defense that saw Sengun go 1-8. While that’s a reflection of his night on offense, a lot of those shots were ones he normally makes. What Sengun DID do, was enjoy a period of not just good, but actually dominant defense in the second half. His stat line records 7 boards, 3 steals and 2 blocks in 18 minutes, but his defense partly lead the second half comeback.

Two players did shine especially brightly tonight for the Rockets, both rookies. Amen Thompson flashed not just acceptable, but highly encouraging, shooting form from range. He was 6-13 overall, and 2-4 from three point range. He only notched one assist, but he was an absolute menace on the attack. His presence of mind, combined with his speed and tenacity really needs to be seen to be understood. On one play Thompson made a mistake on offense, the Spurs broke up the court. Thompson was seemingly out of the play in the corner on the Spurs side of the court. He ended up blocking a three point attempt in the opposite corner on the Rockets side of the court on the same play. Several times a game I see something that is simply incredible from Amen. He’s a rookie. He might have not just a workable, but good, shot.

The other player was Cam Whitmore. Given the state of the Rockets offensive potential (maybe you shouldn’t sign every player on the basis of tough defense?) Cam might end up playing real minutes sooner than later. Cam ended up with 15pts in 24 minutes, but despite going 1-7 from three point range, he made the shot that put the Rockets ahead to stay, and essentially broke the back of the Spurs in the 4th quarter.

The 4th quarter, as it should be in pre-season, was a battle of depth, with deep benches, rookies, etc. Both Udoka and Popovich played it that way, and the Rockets deep bench simply crushed that of the Spurs. The 4th quarter went to Houston 36-13, so that the Rockets who had trailed by 14 to start the quarter ended up winning by 10.

You could see the Spurs DNA in the Rockets more tonight, and you could see how the Spurs simply executed their “quick decision, attack, shoot or pass” offense better than the Rockets. Until they got to the equally inexperienced units of the 4th quarter and the Rockets routed those Spurs.

This game, for all its flaws, was played at high intensity, with both teams trying to win.

What does this all mean?

Probably not much, but thanks to some sort of NBA scheduling philosophy, these teams play again, in San Antonio, on Wednesday. Will we see Wemby? Green? Tari? Who knows?


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