Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots the ball against the Houston Rockets during the game on at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.
Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots the ball against the Houston Rockets during the game on at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. Credit: Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

HOUSTON — Playing the Houston Rockets, especially when they’re as hot as they have been, is as mentally taxing a challenge as there is in the NBA. That is the reason Gregg Popovich was so pleased with his team following the Spurs’ wild 102-100 win in Houston, where the home team’s winning streak came to an end at 10 games.

Even despite the 19 turnovers and late misses at the free-throw line, Pop was happy – yes, he used the word “happy” – with the mental fortitude San Antonio exhibited in coming back from 13 points down in the final minutes, hitting a huge 3-pointer late and surviving a James Harden heave as the buzzer sounded.

“That was the best part of the whole game,” Popovich said. “We showed some toughness, but mentally as much as physically. We could’ve just cashed it in but they just kept working. Defense got a little bit better, physicality got better, we got a break or two (and) made a couple of shots. They never hung their heads, they just kept on pushing … I was really happy with our stick-to-itiveness.”

Two free throws by Ryan Anderson put the Rockets up 96-83 with just 4:39 remaining before the Spurs caught fire and Houston began to unravel a bit. The Spurs then got a Tony Parker 3-pointer and a Pau Gasol fast-break dunk, followed by two straight deep balls from Manu Ginobili and Danny Green. In a span of less than two minutes, San Antonio was down by only two points and right back in the game.

“We got a break, because they shot terribly. We did a pretty good job contesting many of them, but they shot some open ones, too, and that’s not what they usually do,” Ginobili said. “They were 0-for-14 at one point…so we got a little lucky. We caught a break here.”

The Rockets did indeed begin the game missing their first 14 shots from beyond the arc, and failed to get much better from there, finishing an astounding 6-for-38 on 3-pointers. So how in the world did the Rockets remain in the game and even build a double-digit lead in the final minutes? That’ll happen when you give up 20 offensive rebounds, 21 second-chance points, and 26 points off 19 turnovers as the Spurs did Tuesday.

Still, San Antonio battled, going an improbable 8-of-10 from the 3-point line in the final frame and sending what had previously been a raucous Toyota Center crowd into an incredulous state, with Patty Mills delivering the final blow. The Spurs’ sharpshooting point guard found himself wide open from the left wing as Ginobili penetrated with only seconds left on the shot clock, and it turned out to be the final made shot of the game.

Mills was asked afterward how he found himself with so much space at a time like that.

“I have no clue, mate. I have no clue. I didn’t do anything other than just stand there. It was a hell of a pass, right in the shot pocket,” he said. “But yeah I just stood there. It was a broken play. It was what we work on all the time of driving and kicking, and Manu did a great job getting into the lane and everyone went to him.”

Mills finished the game with 13 points off the bench, none bigger than those last three. And the Spurs needed every last one of them.

The common theme of the night in the locker room was that stick-to-itiveness Popovich spoke of after the game. The phrase “48 Minutes” was heard no fewer than 10 times in various player interviews, and it was clear – despite the black marks on parts of the box score – that the team knew the value of a win against an opponent the caliber of Houston.

“In this game it really is 48 minutes – anything can happen in an NBA game. It takes forever. So if you’ve got guys that never stop, you’ve got a shot. I was really proud of them,” Popovich said. “They did a good job against a team that’s just really, really difficult. They (Houston) and the Warriors are probably the two toughest teams to guard, for obvious reasons with the personnel and the system that they have.”

That sting was felt in the other locker room. The Rockets let their 11th consecutive win get away from them when they shouldn’t have, despite missing far too many 3-point attempts.

“Real tough, especially when we let two big leads slip away,” Harden said. “One to start the fourth quarter and the other with 3:30 in the fourth. We’ve got to close the game out. Give (the Spurs) credit. They made shots, we turned the ball over. I didn’t close the right way, we didn’t close the right way.”

Houston sits in third place out West, but leaving a win on the table against a team it may be wrestling with for one of the top seeds in the conference will leave a mark – probably just for a night, but depending how things play out in the coming months, maybe longer.

Yet for at least one night, the Spurs are happy. And it’s safe to say that, because Popovich said so.

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Matthew Tynan

Matthew Tynan has covered the Spurs since 2011 for ESPN, 48 Minutes of Hell, SB Nation, Bleacher Report, ESPN SA and other publications. He is originally from San Antonio but grew up in Fredericksburg,...