Rockets 110, Spurs 112 - Kawhi Leonard... Executioner

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On Monday, the Houston Rockets yet again suffered heartbreak in San Antonio in an absolutely thrilling game with the machine that is the Spurs. Despite a monster game from James Harden (39 points on 65% shooting and 12 assists), the Rockets late-game execution failed them, while San Antonio’s was – as per usual – nearly flawless.

Houston came out with a lot of energy, and that translated to a blisteringly hot first quarter. The Rockets scored 39 points on a whopping 70% shooting from the field in the opening period, led by Harden and Ryan Anderson draining several threes. Houston’s energy also translated into good defense for the quarter and, generally, for the rest of the game.

Despite the Rockets having a 16-point lead after one quarter, they only managed to score 15 total points in the second – allowing the Spurs cut the lead to single digits. In fact, San Antonio went on a 10-0 run midway though the quarter that cut the lead down to just five. Houston would head into to locker room with a 54-47 first half lead.

Harden went on a personal 5-0 run to start the second half, and Houston managed to build the lead back up to 14. However, the Spurs responded with a huge 11-0 run that got the AT&T Center rocking; these runs are absolutely demoralizing. Both teams traded the lead for the rest of the quarter, but the Rockets managed to hold on to an 82-81 lead going into the final 12 minutes.

After San Antonio scored five straight to take a four-point lead, Houston’s bench unit, which was not good in this game, countered with a 7-0 run of their own. Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams made his one and only field goal (he was 1/10 total) in the fourth quarter, during a stretch that saw the Rockets maintain a five-point lead while Harden rested on the bench. Despite Harden’s rest, San Antonio scored five straight to tie the game at 98 after the ‘Beard’ checked in. Eric Gordon and Harden responded with back-to-back threes that gave Houston a 104-98 lead with just under four minutes left to play. Over the course of the next minute or so, Kawhi Leonard went on a personal 7-0 run, with most of his damage coming from the free throw line, to give San Antonio a one-point lead. LaMarcus Aldridge added two more free throws and Gordon responded with a three. The game was now tied at 107 with about one minute left to play.

With the game on the line and Houston’s offensive execution leaving much to be desired, it was Patrick Beverley (who else?) that would ultimately give the Rockets the best chance to win this game. After a missed three pointer, Harden, who struggled all game with giving effort on the defensive glass, allowed an offensive rebound that led to another missed shot. Beverley, not one to ever let his effort be an issue, skied for the rebound to secure a possession for Houston. After the Rockets failed to convert (Harden forced up a bad three), Beverley once again secured a possession for the Rockets by stuffing a Tony Parker drive that led to a (failed) transition opportunity.

With 40 seconds left in the game, Harden drove hard to the basket and managed to draw a foul on a sliding-to-take-the-charge David Lee. Harden short-rimmed the first foul shot and drained the second, giving Houston a 108-107 lead. The Spurs called upon their superstar (and MVP candidate in his own right) to lead San Antonio in their quest to break the hearts and crush the dreams of Rockets fans everywhere. Focused and emotionless as he usually is, Leonard accepted a screen and stopped on a dime to a nail a drifting, line drive three. On the other end of the floor, Harden dazzled David Lee with his patented Euro-step for a layup that was emphatically erased by Kawhi – his final stamp of execution on this game.

This game was all but over when the foul game was being played in the final seconds. However, in a weird ending that perhaps was emblematic of Houston’s lack of execution, the Rockets, down by two points with eight seconds left, failed to intentionally foul anyone on the floor for San Antonio. Head Coach Mike D’Antoni was understandably furious when a foul never happened, but the story of this game was about execution in crunch time. In classic Spurs fashion, they made very few mistakes late, while taking advantage of nearly every mistake the Rockets made.

This one hurts, but there’s no time to mope around, as the schedule doesn’t get much easier from here on out. The Rockets next face the Utah Jazz in Houston on Wednesday night.

Game Ball 

This is a segment of the game recaps that will give the proverbial game ball to a player that proved to be most valuable to the Rockets on a given night. This award won’t necessarily go to the player that puts up the best numbers, but to the player that made the greatest impact on the team – tangible or intangible.

Monday’s ball goes to Patrick Beverley.

On a night where James Harden scored 40 points and dished out 12 assists, his late-game effort and execution was not where it needed to be for the Rockets. However, Patrick Beverley’s undying hustle nearly gave the Rockets another big-time win. His execution was awesome on both ends of the floor, and he was actually the only Rocket to get to double-digit rebounds (10).

I’m not sure Rockets fans can survive many more thrillers against the Spurs, but this matchup has ‘NBA Playoffs’ written all over it.

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