When you’re an NBA team trying to tighten up your defense, as the Spurs were after yielding 73 points in the first half of a blowout loss to the Clippers, the Rockets are one of the last teams you want to see on your schedule.
Houston came into Wednesday night’s game at AT&T Center averaging 108.9 points per game, jacking up nearly 36 3-point shots per game with an offensive efficiency rating of 109.0, fourth-best in the league.
And if you’re coming off the injured list for your season debut, as was Guard Danny Green, the last player you want to be asked to defend is Rockets guard James Harden. The season is too young to already have an MVP race, but Harden will be the favorite if he keeps putting up the sort of numbers he brought to Wednesday’s game: 31.6 points per game, 12.7 assists, and 7.1 rebounds.
For the Spurs, a tough-to-take 101-99 loss felt like a missed opportunity, but also left them with a sense of having made some important strides at the defensive end in a second half in which they held the Rockets to 38 points and kept them scoreless in the final two minutes and eight seconds, when it mattered most.
That crunch time defense gave them a chance to send the game to overtime but went to waste when Kawhi Leonard’s 3-foot runner with about a second left skidded off the front of the rim and LaMarcus Aldridge’s attempted tip-in was inches short of climbing over the rim and into the basket.
Leonard outscored Harden 34-24, but Harden turned in the first triple-double by a Spurs opponent since the team moved into AT&T Center in 2002. Harden added 15 assists and 10 rebounds to his point total for his first triple-double of the season, the 10th of his career. Houston is 9-1 in those games.
Gregg Popovich had drawn up a play for Leonard during a time out called with 5.8 seconds remaining, the Rockets ahead by the eventual final score, 101-99. Leonard had already scored 34 points and gotten to the foul line eight times. Putting the ball in his hands for the final play was a no-brainer, and Popovich’s play produced the kind of shot his scoring star will make nine out of ten times.
“We got a great look,” Popovich said.
“It was a good (look), a good play call,” Leonard said. “I got to the paint, got a shot off. (It) just didn’t fall.”
Aldridge’s putback attempt was trickier, but point-blank.
“I had it and it kind of slipped,” said Aldridge, who suffered through a 5-for-15 shooting night. “I was in between a dunk and trying to lay it in, and it just came out of my hand at the end. If I had it back, maybe I’d make it. Tonight was one of those nights.”
The game wouldn’t have come down to a final shot for the Spurs had they defended in the first half as they did in the second. Instead, the Rockets got lob dunks off back-door cuts and slipped screens and made 22-of-41 shots, 7-of-14 from 3-point range.
It was the first time since April, of 1997, a couple of months before the Spurs would make Tim Duncan the first pick of the 1997 draft, that they had given up 60 or more points in the first half of two straight games.
“We gave up 63 points in the first half and 38 in the second half,” Popovich said. “That’s what we’ve been doing here at home – play a quarter or two of defense and a quarter or two of no defense. The consistency, in that regard, has not been good.”
It is clear that Green will help bring some consistency to the defensive execution once he gets in game shape. He had four steals and a block in 26 minutes and his teammates were happy to have him back.
“Danny is a great defender,” said Leonard, the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year. “He’s very smart and uses his hands well. And there’s other guys doing a great job, but Danny is a good defender.”
Pulling on his game shoes before tipoff, Green said he felt like his teammates did when they were preparing for the team’s season opener against the Golden State Warriors, who set the NBA record for 3-pointers attempted in a season as they ran to an all-time best 73-9 record. It is going to take him a while to get his legs under him – he made only 2-of-8 3-pointers – but his teammates were happy to see him back in the starting lineup.
Green’s legs almost betrayed him on a big play early in the fourth quarter, when he picked off an errant pass from Houston’s Tyler Ennis near half court and took off toward the Spurs basket for a sort-of dunk, not quite getting high enough to truly throw down the ball.
“My legs aren’t fully there yet, as you saw on the fast break,” Green said. “But it was a good game for me to come back and get thrown in the fire against Harden, who is putting up big numbers right now, but I get to play him again in a couple of days, so I think we will learn from it and get better.”
Indeed, the Spurs will have a re-match with the Rockets at Toyota Center in Houston on Saturday. First they will try to snap a rare, three-game home losing streak when they play the Detroit Pistons at AT&T Center on Friday. Wednesday’s loss was the first time since December of 2014 they had lost three straight on their home court.