HOUSTON – The NBA has scheduled games on Christmas Day since 1947 and over the past three decades has used the holiday games to showcase its best teams. This explains why the Spurs have played 10 Christmas Day games in the past 15 seasons.

Lately, the Spurs have found the holiday games about as appealing as finding new underwear in their Christmas stockings. They have lost their last three Christmas Day games, including Friday’s game against the Houston Rockets, absorbing an 88-84 loss at Toyota Center.

Makes you wonder if the dads on the oldest roster in the NBA suffer holiday melancholia to the point of distraction. The team’s three big stars – 39-year-old team captain Tim Duncan, 38-year-old Manu Ginobili and 33-year-old Tony Parker – admit they don’t like being away from their children on Christmas.

“I hate playing on Christmas, but that’s just me,” Duncan said. “I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. But it is what it is.”

What it was on Friday was combined shooting of 9-for-24 by the three veterans, Parker dragging down their combined percentage by missing six-of-seven shots.

Parker admitted he wanted to be home on Christmas with his family, including his 18-month-old son, Josh, aware that there is something special going on as his French-born parents celebrate Joyeux Noël.

“I wish I was home, to be honest with you,” Parker said. “I wish I was home with my family and my son. But it’s a business.”

Duncan, father of two school-age children, may as well have been Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” in the first half, foiled at every turn. The Spurs captain missed all three of his shots, barely grazing the rim on one. His problems continued in the second half, when he committed three costly turnovers late in the game, including an errant pass with a minute and 41 seconds left and the Spurs trailing by four, 88-84.

“We made too many mistakes down the stretch, too many turnovers,” Duncan said. “Personally, I think I made three down the last five or six minutes, so those mistakes bit us. And I thought that was the game.”

The Rockets are a team that has underachieved so thoroughly this season that Kevin McHale was fired as head coach less than three weeks after their first game. The 2015 Western Conference Finalists have been under-.500 most of the season but got to 16-15 on Friday. They are still far back of the Spurs, now 25-6 and in second place in the Western Conference, but looked a lot more like a team that most experts believed would be among the Western elites this season.

The Rockets have been a woeful defensive team most of the season. They entered the game allowing an average of 105.6 points per game, 27uth in the 30-team NBA. Only once before playing the Spurs had they held a team below 90 points. Before the game interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff challenged his players to defend “the right way.”

His definition of the right way?

“We have to be prepared to do the little things defensively,” Bickerstaff said. “We’ve got to hit people; we’ve got to rebound the ball; we’ve got to contain our man; we’ve got to get back in transition.”

That’s three things every team always tries to do on defense and one that is all about physicality. Popovich might not state the need for physicality as indelicately as Bickerstaff but he appreciates his admonition.

What bothered the Spurs coach was not so much the fact that the Rockets hit the Spurs. It was that his players didn’t adjust to Houston’s aggression or the “play-on” approach of referees Jess Phillips, Derrick Collins and Gary Zielinski.

“If that’s the way the game is going to be called you’ve got to roll with it,” Popovich said. “Whatever the crew seems to be emphasizing or not emphasizing, or whatever, that’s our responsibility to adjust and I thought their pressure hurt us in a lot of situations.

“I thought they were very physical and very aggressive defensively. I don’t think we really adjusted to that very well.”

The Spurs had forged the second-best record in the league this season by reverting to the smothering defensive approach that characterized their first two NBA championship runs, when Duncan and Hall of Fame center David Robinson anchored the league’s best defense. They continued their standout defensive play against the Rockets, making them the 20th team this season held below 90 points. For the first time all season, that was not enough to produce victory.

“Defensively, I think we did a good job,” said Ginobili. “Our offense just was not smooth enough; holding the ball too much. Their pressure bothered us. Not sharp enough.”

Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard held Houston’s scoring leader, James Harden, to 7-for-21 shooting but he hit two 3-pointers – his only long ball hits of the game – in the final four minutes and 15 seconds. Ordinarily, that would guarantee a win against Houston, but not on a Christmas night when the Rockets defense was doing the hitting.

“They denied and pressured the ball and we couldn’t get anything easy,” Ginobili said. “Our trademark ball movement was not there because they were jumping on passing lanes. When that happens you’ve got to attack the rim more. We held it and tried to post the ball, holding it, instead of moving it from one side to another. We helped them out.”

Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning sports journalist who has covered the NBA for the San Antonio Express-News and other publications.