Fresh off a 10-game win streak, the Houston Rockets faced off against their second true challenge in the month of December in the San Antonio Spurs, their first challenge being the overtime win against the Golden State Warriors.
With their divisional rivals ahead by 1.5 games as the second seed, a win would prove to the league that the Rockets are for real and not just riding on a relatively easy stretch in their schedule. By the end of the third quarter, it seemed like the Rockets were ready to show just how much of a menace they are to the upper echelon of teams, as they were up 78-71. However, a late push by the Spurs exposed a weakness that was much more prevalent in last season's Rockets: their inability to close out games. This resulted in a complete meltdown with Houston up 13 and 4:39 left in the game.
Shots Not Falling for the Rockets
While their defense has improved since last year, the Rockets' true forte is obviously their offense, especially from deep. They're shooting 38.3 percent from three, good for fourth in the league, while making the most per game, at 14.9. However, their three point stroke was nowhere to be found today, as they shot 15.8 percent from deep. Players like James Harden (1-11), Ryan Anderson (1-3), Eric Gordon (1-8), Trevor Ariza (3-9), Patrick Beverley (0-4), and Sam Dekker (0-3), normally solid to great three-point shooters, were missing right and left. This is partly because of bad luck and partly because of the Spurs' defense, fourth best in the league in terms of points allowed per game.
Without their three-point shooting, an entire section of the Rockets' offense was gone. Players continued to jack up shots trying to get their rhythm, and the Spurs were able to focus on interior defense late in the game. This game proved that while the Rockets are a formidable team that can compete with the best of them, they are not mature enough yet to focus on other methods of scoring if their outside shots aren't falling. To make it to the next tier, players like Harden, Anderson, and Gordon need to learn to rely on their teammates or find other methods of scoring when they are unable to make threes.
Late Game Collapse By the Rockets
The Rockets looked ready to seal the deal with 4:39 left in the game and a 13-point lead. However, the Spurs ended the match on a 19-4 run, with a Patty Mills three in the final seconds to steal the win. This collapse is a sad reminder of last season when it seemed like the Rockets could never keep a lead in the final minutes of a game. A combination of bad turnovers and missed three-pointers are what sunk the Rockets' hopes to beat their rivals. Discipline and maturity would've stopped the team from making such costly mistakes late in the game, and those will come with experience. Hopefully, the Rockets will learn and grow by the postseason so that they can make a nice run deep into the playoffs.
Clint Capela's Absence Hurts the Rockets
Clint Capela has been a great interior presence all season long for the Rockets. Whether it's being a rim protector, a solid rebounder or the receiving end of alley-oops, Capela's always been there when needed. With him being sidelined for at least four weeks due to a slightly fractured fibula, the Rockets opted to start Nene, give Montrezl Harrell more playing time, and call up rookie Chinanu Onuaku from the D-League. If this game is any indication of the coming month without Capela, the Rockets should be fine. They won the rebounding battle by a total of eight, the big men scored a total of 19 points on 8-13 shooting and kept the Spurs' big men to approximately their season averages in points. Still, expectations should be kept in check. The Spurs are tied for 23rd in total rebounds, therefore any matchup against teams that specialize in rebounding could pose a real threat to the Rockets.
Up Next for the Rockets
Houston takes on the Phoenix Suns at Phoenix on Wednesday night.
Up Next for the Spurs
San Antonio will fly out to Los Angeles to play the Clippers on Thursday ninght.