All-Star point guard Chris Paul delivered when the game was on the line Thursday night, scoring three consecutive baskets that propelled the Houston Rockets to a 102-91 victory against the Spurs at the AT&T Center.
Down 82-70 after three quarters, the Silver and Black scored the first six points of the fourth period to cut the deficit to six with 9:58 left. But that's as close as the Spurs got.
Great players make great plays. Paul and James Harden, the other star in Houston's highly touted backcourt, made some big ones down the stretch.
Asked what his mindset was when he took the critical shots in the fourth quarter, Paul said: "To just go. We just hooped tonight. Just trying to get through a game and that shot is always there."
Directing the Rockets' offense with his characteristic poise and efficiency, Paul coolly struck for six unanswered points on three pull-up jumpers in a span of 2:15 to put Houston up 88-76.
The Spurs trimmed the lead to seven, 92-85, on a three-pointer by Bryn Forbes with 2:49 left, but Harden nailed back-to-back three-pointers to boost Houston's lead to 99-85 with 1:36 left. Harden was fouled on his second three and sank the free throw to complete the four-point play.
Harden scored a game-high 28 points on 10-of-20 shooting, including 5 of 12 three-pointers, and dished out 11 assists.
Houston improved to 37-13 and San Antonio slipped to 34-20.
The Rockets lured Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers last summer to close out games like these. Houston wouldn't have beaten the Spurs without him. Paul was the difference in the outcome.
On the other hand, the Silver and Black would have won if Kawhi Leonard hadn't been on the bench in street clothes. Sidelined with a lingering quad injury, Leonard has played in only nine games this season. The Spurs can't beat the Rockets without their All-NBA forward. It's simply a matter of talent.
The front-runner for the NBA's MVP Award this season, Harden recorded the highest-scoring triple-double in league Tuesday night, scoring 60 points in the Rockets' 114-107 win over the Orlando Magic.
Houston had five other players score in double figures -- Gerald Green (15), Clint Capela (14), Ryan Anderson (13), Paul (10) and PJ Tucker (10).
"It's a great step," Harden said of the victory. "All night, defensively, we were locked in. We got stops. We knew at some point they were going to make a run, especially in the second half. We held our composure. They cut it to six, and we got buckets. We got buckets and we got stops."
The Rockets played without injured players Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon. Spurs reserve forward Rudy Gay also was sidelined by a heel injury that has kept him out for 20 games.
Houston shot 44.6 percent (37/83) and made 14 of a whopping 42 three-pointers in going 2-0 against the Silver and Black this season.
Danny Green led San Antonio's scoring with 22 points. LaMarcus Aldridge (16) and Bryn Forbes (11) were the only other Spurs in double figures.
San Antonio shot 42.2 percent (35/83) and was 6 of 24 from the three-point line for 25 percent. The Siilver and Black had problems with turnovers, finishing with 16, eight in each half, that the Rockets converted into 27 points.
Although the Silver and Black lost, they grew as a team and learned some valuable lessons that could come in handy at playoff time.
"I thought we got better in the game," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "They did a good job to move the ball and understand tht the ball movement allows us to penetrate better and break down the defense because we can't do that on the dribble.
"There's got to be good passes and then a tight closeout, that sort of thing. So, I thought they did a better job. A lot of the guys are starting to figure that out, and I was real pleased with it in the second half."
After trailing 54-38 at the half, the Spurs outscored the Rockets 53-48 in the second half.
Led by Harden and Green, the Rockets led 54-38 at the half. Harden scored 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including 2 of 4 from the three-point line. Green hit 3 of 6 attempts from beyond the arc and had 14 points in the first two quarter. Ryan Anderson, who nailed 3 of 5 three-pointers, had 11 points.
Houston shot 50 percent overall (19/38) and 42.1 percent (8/19) from the three-point line in the first half. The Rockets had 12 assists on their 19 made field goals.
Aldridge scored 14 points and Green had 11 in the first half for the Spurs, who shot 40.5 percent (17/42) overall and 25 percent (2/8) from beyond the arc.
San Antonio had 11 assists on its 17 field goals, but had eight turnovers that Houston converted into 16 points.
Asked what he took from the game after playing without Leonard, Popovich said: "The game is important. You want to improve every time. It doesn't matter who's hurt and who is not on the court. You want to do things fundamentally sound and what's best for your group.
"That's why I was pleased with their ball movement in the second half compared to the first half. I thought their pursuit and their aggressiveness was great and in the end a couple of great players hit shots. I thought Chris was great and he did rise and hit about 3, 4 shots in a row. James hit a couple of threes back-to-back and that's talent taking over, which doesn't bother me at all."
Popovich wasn't quite through putting the defeat in perspective.
"Everything else is what's really important for the end of the season," he said. "So I thought we did a good job."
The Silver and Black end their five-game homestand Saturday night against the Utah Jazz. Tipoff is at 8.