SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs shot horribly for most of their rematch against the shorthanded Houston Rockets, but clamped up on defense and put the game away with a late scoring run.
DeMar DeRozan led San Antonio with 24 points, and Jakob Poeltl put up 13 and 11 in his best game of the season. The Spurs shot 40% from the floor and just 5-24 from deep, but it was actually much worse before they turned things around late.
"The fourth quarter was great for us," said head coach Gregg Popovich. "That's what we were used to on the road, I don't know where it was in that first game, and it took us a while to get going tonight, but we finally got it in the fourth quarter, picked up our physicality on defense, made a few shots, but held them to 19 in that quarter and the defense picked up and gave us a chance. We knocked down a few shots toward the end, so that's what we've been used to."
Patty Mills had shot poorly in the past few games and continued that trend, but hit a few big ones late in the game tonight and finished with 11 points. He gave Houston credit for their defensive intensity, and echoed Pop's assessment that they got back in it with defense. As for what adjustment was made in the second half, Patty said it was the simple ethos of this team under Popovich:
"I think the adjustment is just pounding the rock, as it's always been."
For the uninitiated, it's one of Popovich's favorite quotes from Jacob Riis:
"When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."
That's about how it went for San Antonio in this one, as they shot 1-16 from deep to start the game on a lot of good looks.
The Spurs just kept executing their offense, pounding the rock and trusting themselves and each other until the stone lid on the basket split in two. Even against good defense, DeMar and others finally got their shots to go when it mattered most.
"They're people who have been around, they know it's a situation where even if they're not dropping, you've got to continue to play defense to keep yourself in a game, and we told them we thought that the worm had finally turned, hopefully, in that fourth quarter, and it turned just enough for us to knock down a few shots," Popovich said. "Then we got a couple of great defensive plays, a couple of steals from DeMar and Dejounte, and that kind of sealed it."
The turnover battle is how San Antonio won this game despite shooting so poorly. They lost it 12 times, which is good but a bit more than normal, but they scored a season-high 31 points off of 22 Houston turnovers.
The only Spur who shot better than 50% from the floor was Jakob Poeltl, who has struggled in the early part of the season but put up 13 points and 11 boards, adding 3 blocks, 3 assists and a steal. San Antonio players not named Poeltl shot 36% from the floor.
"He did more than keep us afloat, he was the star of the game," Popovich said of the 7'1" center, who used his size advantage and touch to finish in close while impacting the defense as well. "He was a junkyard dog out there, he worked his ass off, he was fantastic."
"It feels good, I think that's sort of what my role has to be on the team, and obviously it's going to be a little different from game to game, but tonight they were undersized and I really tried to get in there and be aggressive on the glass, try to use my size against them, and it really worked out."
Poeltl needed to step up as LaMarcus Aldridge faltered, managing just 4 points and 2 rebounds in 17 minutes of action. Popovich noted that the Rockets switch a lot, which has made things difficult for Aldridge.
Poeltl complimented Dejounte Murray's ability to spearhead the defense and find him in dangerous spots. After bouncing back from a tough first half and taking command in the second, Murray finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals, and 3 assists, helping guide the team to the win and put the game out of reach late by scoring 7-straight points.
Murray talked about the effort and intelligent play that led to the win, and pointed praise back at Poeltl, who he played against in college when he was at Washington and Poeltl was at Utah.
"He played hard, I love seeing that Jakob," Murray said. "I just try to tell Jak, 'be Jakob, play hard, around that rim go dunk on somebody, catch and shoot, dribble, pop a shot, whatever.' Just try to build confidence in him as we go, that's what we focus on, building confidence in one another and sticking together."
Patty Mills echoed that, saying that what we saw from Poeltl tonight is who he is, it's just a matter of getting that aggression out of him consistently.
Mills said that the team's effort out of the gate wasn't what they had hoped for, especially after Coach Pop called the team out in that regard after losing to Houston in the first game, but said that guys stepped up and made winning plays.
Even though the poor start will give Pop plenty of material for the next film session, San Antonio was able to put the game out of reach for the last eight minutes or so. They probably should have gotten to that point sooner, but figuring out how was a valuable learning experience.
San Antonio's next chance to show what they've learned will come in Portland on Martin Luther King Day.
PJ Tucker stuck to DeRozan on the final shot that rimmed out at the end of the first game, and his personal mission to stop DeMar continued. Neither team shot well out of the gate, but a few defensive lapses from San Antonio gave the Rockets a couple of open threes and a backdoor layup.
Keldon Johnson started the game as the primary defender on Christian Wood, who went off mostly against LaMarcus Aldridge in the first game. Houston continued their pattern of shooting well in San Antonio as they built a 20-10 lead while the Spurs continued to brick shots.
The young guys helped get San Antonio back in it, with Jakob Poeltl hitting a shot inside, Devin Vassell getting another in close, and Keldon getting another interior bucket before diming Rudy Gay on a layup. Poeltl swatted a shot inside, helping the Spurs tighten up on defense.
Ben McLemore hit his first three attempts from deep, and then got fouled on an attempt from the arc. He led all scorers with 13 points after the first, with Houston leading 30-21.
McLemore shook Dejounte Murray for another three, bringing a hook from Coach Pop.
The Spurs opened the quarter on a 15-6 run to tie, with DeMar DeRozan getting a few buckets through contact. He got a bit annoyed after one, and a technical resulted.
Murray missed seven of his first eight shots, but drove undeterred for two tough layups.
San Antonio tied it at 38, but called timeout after the Rockets scored 5 in a row. Houston outscored the Spurs 18-0 from deep to start the game, but Patty knocked down the team's first triple in nine tries.
San Antonio's defense continued to force turnovers, and DeRozan tied the game at 50 with two free throws. It would have been that score at halftime, but another Houston 3 over a good contest made it 53-50 at the break.
Outside of Jakob Poeltl, the Spurs shot an unsustainably-bad 31% from the floor, and 1-10 from deep. It was a small miracle that they only trailed by three after starting with poor focus and shooting that poorly.
Stopping Houston continued to prove problematic, but San Antonio's offense began clicking to start the second half. DeMar DeRozan hit a few shots from his spots, and LaMarcus Aldridge tied it at 60 with an open mid-range jumper after starting the game 1-6 from the floor.
Dejounte Murray got to the rim to continue shaking off his tough start, then found Keldon Johnson in transition for a strong layup through contact.
Johnson used that physicality on the other end to step in front of a drive and force a turnover, leading to a high-speed collision in transition for Lonnie Walker IV, who gave the Spurs a 65-63 lead with an and-1.
After forcing Houston's 14th turnover, Johnson took on three Rockets defenders in transition and finished at the cup.
Walker missed a few threes, but Patty Mills recovered one and finished a layup to cap a 9-0 run for San Antonio.
Mills struggled to shoot, forcing two misses and just missing an open look from the corner. He atoned for one of those misses by taking a charge in transition.
Houston fought back during a rough stretch for San Antonio's bench and re-took the lead. After a tough possession, Patty bailed them out with a tough three to tie it at 72.
On the next possession Poeltl blocked a sure dunk, and then Mills drove and kicked to Murray for their second three after starting the game 1-16 from deep.
San Antonio led 75-72 with 12 minutes left.
The Spurs' bench unit pushed the lead to 7, but allowed Houston back within three before Vassell got fouled on a triple and hit all three free throws. Mason Jones hit another three, his fifth in seven tries, and then threw his body into Lonnie Walker for a foul on a shot that went. Pop challenged, but unsuccessfully.
DeRozan went to the post against PJ Tucker and hit a fading shot. On a subsequent post-up he got a much easier shot at the rim, but missed. He then found Keldon for an open three, which he knocked down.
A few possessions and some good ball movement later, DeMar swung the ball to Dejounte Murray in the same spot, and he drained another three giving him 14 points.
Murray pulled up for an open jumper, which he swished, then ripped his third steal and laid it in to get to 18 points.
DeRozan got to the rim for an and-1 that gave San Antonio a 100-85 lead with under three minutes to play.
Houston kept it interesting with a quick 6-0 run, including another three from Jones.
Lonnie missed a three, but Poeltl got another board and got it back to him for a dunk attempt that turned into a free throw. DeRozan jumped in for a steal and dunked to make it 103-91 lead, and final score.
When, where: Saturday, 4:00 p.m., San Antonio
All-time series record: Spurs lead 110-91
Last season: Spurs won 2-1
Season series: Rockets up 1-0
Last meeting: Rockets won 109-105
Rocket's last game: Won versus Spurs, 109-105
Spurs' last game: Lost versus Rockets, 109-105
Rocket's last 10 games/streak: 4-6, won 1
Spurs' last 10 games/streak: 4-6, lost 1
Rocket's injury/inactive report: Danuel House: OUT; Victor Oladipo: DAY-TO-DAY; Broderic Thomas: OUT; John Wall: OUT; Eric Gordon: OUT (lower leg); Sterling Brown
Spurs' injury/inactive report: Quinndary Weatherspoon: OUT(knee); Drew Eubanks: OUT (health/safety protocols); Derrick White: OUT (toe); Keita Bates-Diop: OUT (upper respiratory infection); Luka Samanic: OUT (sore throat)
"It's got nothing to do with defense, offense, it has to do with between the ears, being ready to play," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after a disappointing loss to a shorthanded but highly-motivated Houston Rockets, wasting a career-high 29 points from Keldon Johnson.
"We had four or five guys who were out to lunch."
James Harden's last public act as a Rocket was saying that the team wasn't good enough, and they played like they wanted to prove him wrong in a nationally-televised game, scrapping for a 109-105 win. Pop said before the game that he expected them to come out with something to prove, and when asked after the game if that wound up going like he expected, he answered with one word in the affirmative. (Continue reading here)
After some time to cool down, Pop said before the game on Saturday afternoon that the mini-series format gives everyone from the coaches to the players another chance to watch the tape, adjust, and do something different.