Just another nutty night in November

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SAN ANTONIO — We’ve seen a few clunkers and a string of blowouts over the first month of the NBA season in San Antonio, but what we were treated to on Saturday night was a run-and-gun experience that has everyone already setting their DVRs for Spurs-Rockets on Christmas Day. But, after wild swings of basketball insanity, Houston was the team with just a little more gas in the tank in a 112-106 win.

The Rockets scored 23 points in the final 4:41 and James Harden accounted for 16 of them (scored 12 points, assisted on four during that span), as the Spurs’ late-game backcourt of Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli just couldn’t handle the guy with the beard down the stretch.

And isn’t it appropriate that it was Harden?

The former Thunder sixth man and current max-contract, franchise guard in Houston has made a habit of hitting big shots against San Antonio, and it was his late, game-tying three that Gregg Popovich said was the final blow before the Rockets eventually took the lead.

 

 

That shot came just moments after a Tony Parker lay-up put the Spurs up by three points and in great position to complete the comeback. But Harden was able to get away from Belinelli and find space off the Dwight Howard screen. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green had been the primary defenders on Harden all night, but their performance on the offensive end forced Popovich to make the difficult decision to remove them from the game.

Belinelli was on fire. He has been all year, really. His understanding of the system is almost shocking to this point, as the synergy that exists between he and Ginobili is something beautiful to watch. The two are running the show for an explosive second unit, and they’re having to pick up the slack offensively on nearly a nightly basis. And much of that is due to Leonard’s struggles from the 3-point line.

Leonard and Green — who’s been shooting well — combined to shoot 1-for-8 from deep, and it was hurting the offensive momentum the Spurs spent so much time gathering. San Antonio led by a point with 4:27 left in the game when Leonard got a great look from the top of the key, but he left it very short as Terrence Jones flew past him on the contest. The result: a quick Harden rebound in the lane and an outlet pass to Jones, who was streaking toward the Spurs’ basket. And Leonard was too late getting back.

 

 

Popovich replaced Leonard with Bonner during the dead ball, and he pulled Green just over a minute later. Neither was playing well, so you certainly understand the move. But it left San Antonio’s perimeter defense in a bad place against one of the best scorers in the NBA, and Harden made them pay.

What a game it was, though. You don’t often get performances of that caliber when both teams are on the second night of a back-to-back, but this was a track meet that featured crazy momentum swings on both sides.

The Spurs came out lethargic, looking like a team that had just traveled from Orlando the night before. The Rockets were penetrating and kicking relentlessly, launching away from three with little hesitation, as is their modus operandi. They were killing San Antonio, and the significant contingent of Houston fans in attendance was making itself loudly heard.

In what felt like five minutes, the Rockets ran out to a 55-32 lead and were threatening to run the Spurs out of their own building. Then Tony Parker happened. Opposing coaches regularly marvel at Parker’s stamina and his ability to keep the pedal to the metal when his team needs him most. He ripped off a 10-0 run all on his own over a span of 1:49 late in the second quarter, and the Spurs would fly out on a 58-30 run over the next 20 minutes.

And Parker was brilliant.

 

 

So, if you’re keeping track, that’s a 55-32 Houston run over the first 20 minutes and a 58-30 San Antonio run over the next 20 minutes. The final eight minutes were just a dog fight, and the Spurs couldn’t hold on.

“It’s a great lesson for us. When you play a good basketball team you’ve got to come with passion, an edge and aggressiveness for 48 minutes, and we did that for a half. So I think it was a good lesson for our guys, that they got embarrassed for a whole half,” Popovich said. “In the second half, their aggressiveness and attention to detail was very good. They got themselves back in the game. I couldn’t have been more proud of the way they played in the second half. Great game to have early in the season.”

It was great, to be sure, but I prefer the word ‘wacky.’ This game was played at a pace of nearly 108 possessions per 48 minutes (the Spurs had 112 possessions; the Rockets had 122); The Rockets had 29 points in transition (according to Synergy), nearly 19 more than what they give up on average; Houston took six threes in transition and hit five of them; and the Rockets allowed 106 points and scored 112, yet their defensive-efficiency rating improved and their offensive rating worsened (hat tip to Andrew Lynch).

For the Spurs, Belinelli continues to scorch the earth alongside Manu. Marco is shooting 56.5 percent from the 3-point line, and when the Ginobelli/Belinobili duo is on the court together, the Spurs are scoring 118.2 points per 100 possessions and boasting a 64.6 true-shooting percentage. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

But other kinks are still in need of some ironing. When Leonard is struggling as bad as he is from the perimeter, it’s difficult to leave him on the court in crunch time, which obviously hurts against teams that love to run small-ball lineups and possess elite scorers. The shooting from the second unit is great, but in this league you need a lockdown defender on the wing with all the offensive talent that’s out there.

Still, you can’t look at this game as anything more than just a nutty night in November. Hell, Popovich and his coaching staff aren’t even watching film on other teams in the league yet. We’re very much in the feeling-it-out stage of the NBA schedule, and last night damn sure gave us a feel of the kind of atmosphere that’s going to come with this matchup going forward.

The AT&T Center was as loud as it’s been since the Finals last season, and the levels of vitriol, tension, intensity, on-court battles and coaching confrontations were right on par for what’s starting to feel like a real rivalry.

 

 

For as long as I was sitting on press row finishing some writing after the game, I could hear a roving mob of Rockets fans circling the plaza level yelling, “HOUSTON! … ROCKETS! … HOUSTON! … ROCKETS!” It was cute because it’s November, but still, you could tell that game meant a whole hell of a lot to almost everyone with a ticket.

The two teams face one another again on Dec. 25, and as that Christmas Day NBA slate begins to look just awful — most of the teams are either struggling mightily or injured or both — the rematch of sorts could save the basketball day.

And before we finish up here, how about we check in with Timmy Duncan.

 

 

Over the last six games, Duncan is shooting 51.6 percent from the floor, including 50 percent from the dreaded mid-range area that had been the source of some early season criticism. The Spurs are averaging 106.8 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the floor during that stretch, and they’re allowing just 92.8 to opponents.

Duncan went for 20 points and eight rebounds in the loss to the Rockets, and his defense on Howard (13 points, 11 rebounds) was vintage throughout the night.

The 37-year-old legend still has it; now it’s time for Leonard to catch up.


Stats and video courtesy of NBA.com.