8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Houston -4
Western powers collide as the undefeated Houston Rockets host the defending NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs at the Toyota Center in what could be a very premature preview of the Playoffs. The Spurs (2-1) come into tonight’s contest rather rested, for Gregg Popovich’s charges have only seen the court three times over the last nine days, with a narrow 94-92 victory over the Hawks Wednesday Night being their last game in nearly a week. San Antonio jumped out to a comfortable 27-15 lead in the First Quarter, but was forced to stave off a furious rally from the visiting Hawks, whom outscored the hosts 53-45 in the second half. As has become general procedure for this team, Popovich used a staggering twelve players, with the bench accounting for 34 points. In what was a disjointed affair void of any real pace, the Spurs shot 44.9% from the field, yet made up for that figure at the charity stripe where they netted 27-of-38 free-throws (71.1%). The Champs were fouled twenty-five times, enabling them to attempt a healthy twenty-seven more free-throws than the Hawks, outscoring them by nineteen points in that regard. And with that said, the offense still managed to dish out twenty-five assists, with seven different players serving at least two helpers, seven of which came courtesy of Tony Parker. The Frenchman also scored a team-high seventeen points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field (58.3%). Veteran big man Tim Duncan scored seventeen points of his own last night, while also securing thirteen rebounds, four assist, three steals, and six blocks, as San Antonio utilized their considerable size advantage in the paint over Atlanta.
It should be interesting to see just how this team responds in the second half of a back-to-back, particularly after such a close game the night before. Popovich has been notorious for resting his aging trio of Duncan, Parker, and Manu Ginobili on the back end of such situations, especially early in the campaign, but he may be tempted to use resist that urge against the Rockets, who lead the Southwest Division and by extension the Western Conference. One factor that could lead to that veteran triumvirate playing tonight is the fact that the Spurs haven’t executed like they’re accustomed to at this point. Chemistry takes time to develop, even when you return the vast majority of the roster from last year’s Champions, and this stunted schedule hasn’t done San Antonio any favors thus far. Popovich’s outfit has averaged just 94.7 points (21st overall) on 46.1% shooting from the field (9th overall), including 49.7% from within the arc (10th overall) and 38.6% from beyond it (8th overall), with an effective field goal percentage of 52.3% (7th overall). Now those may sound like pretty good numbers, and they are, but the represent a regression from the past couple of seasons. With that said, there is reason to believe that those statistics will inevitably improve, for no team has been better over the last three seasons at sharing the ball than the Spurs. Last year, San Antonio averaged a healthy 25.2 assists per game, most in the NBA, and this season rank seventh in the league with 22.7 dimes a night. Ball movement typically breeds efficiency, and the more these guys are on the court together the better their execution will be. Through three games, twelve different players have averaged over ten minutes of playing time, with eight scoring over 8.0 points per game. However, that lack of time together hasn’t prevented them from locking down their opponents on the defensive end of the court; the Spurs have allowed a 95.3 points (10th overall) on 43.2% shooting from the field (9th overall), including 48.2% shooting from within the arc (17th overall) and 28.1% beyond it (5th overall), all the while sporting a plus-4.3 rebounding differential (8th overall), and yielding just 19.3 assists per game (7th overall).
Meanwhile, the Rockets (5-0) are off to their best start in eighteen years, and have to feel very confident in their chances of adding the defending champions to their list of casualties. After all, it’s hard to imagine another team in the league playing better than these guys; Houston became the first team since the 1985-1986 Denver Nuggets to win their first five games by ten points or more. Granted, the naysayers will point out to the relative strength of their schedule which has been poor, with the likes of the 76ers, Celtics, Jazz, and Lakers, who are a cumulative 3-16, all biting the dust. However, that changed Tuesday Night as Kevin McHale’s charges stormed into Miami and handed the previously undefeated Heat their first loss of the young season. In the 108-91 victory, the visitors outlasted the reigning four-time Eastern Conference Champions, outscoring them 51-36 in the second half. The Rockets were red-hot offensively, shooting a blistering 51.5% from the field, including 17-of-37 from downtown (45.9%), where they ousted the hosts by fifteen points. The tandem of James Harden and Dwight Howard accounted for 51 points themselves on 16-of-29 shooting (55.2%), and 16-of-21 from the free-throw line (76.2%), nineteen rebounds, ten assists, and three steals. Harden in particular, nearly had a triple-double, posting totals of 25 points, nine rebounds, and ten assists, with a steal and a pair of blocks. Defensively, McHale’s charges put the clamps down on the Heat, relegating them to a mere 41.9% shooting from the field and sixteen assists, while forcing fifteen turnovers.
The offseason was a rough one for the Rockets who failed in their bid to land Chris Bosh, and as a result parted ways with the likes of Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, and Jeremy Lin. Management was able to save face by adding Trevor Ariza to a fairly modest contract (four years, $32 million), but the general opinion was that Houston simply didn’t do enough to get better during the Summer to improve upon last year’s record. After all, Asik and Lin were crucial components of the rotation off the bench, while Parsons was the team’s third-leading scorer and a threat from beyond the arc. With Harden and Howard combining to score 44.4 points per game, the burden falls on Ariza to provide support of the two stars. Ariza is coming off the best season of his career, in which he averaged 14.4 points on 45.6% shooting, including a career-high 40.7% from three, along with 6.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.6 steals, en route to helping the young Wizards return to the postseason for the first time since 200. While not the creator that Parsons was, the twelve-year veteran is an excellent perimeter defender, and has built himself into a stellar three-point threat; this season, Ariza is netting a career-best 4.2 threes per game on a ridiculous 60.0% shooting, creating excellent spacing for Harden and Howard to work within. It may not be the Big Three that Management had hoped when courting Bosh, but it’s far from a bad consolation prize.