Rockets survive huge dropoff

HOUSTON — The seemed to be rolling in the first half against New Orleans, shooting well and building a double-digit lead.

Luis Scola knew better.

“We weren’t executing the right way,” the Rockets forward said. “They came back, and that’s what happens when you don’t play good.”

Houston survived one of the worst fourth quarters in team history to hold off the Hornets 90-88 in overtime on Thursday night. scored 27 of his 32 points in the first half, grabbed a season-high 17 rebounds and the Rockets won their fifth straight game.


“It just looked like the life was out of us,” Martin said. “But we found a way to pull out that one.”

Courtney Lee had a season-high 17 points and added 10 points and eight assists for the Rockets, who shot 3 for 21 in the fourth quarter and mustered seven points, matching a team record set three times previously.

Martin hit 10 of 14 shots in the first half, then went 2 for 6 in the fourth.

“I always tell them, ‘Give the fight, and do your best,’” New Orleans coach said. “We did everything we could to win the game.”

Spurs’ Hill, Memphis’ Conley rekindle old times

By Jeff McDonald

Shortly before the start of the playoffs, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pulled guard George Hill aside and issued marching orders only he could understand.

Once the postseason began, Popovich said, he wanted the mild-mannered Hill to transform into an alter ego named Indiana George.

“Pop means Indiana George from back in Indianapolis,” Hill said. “Just being a freak of nature on offense.”

In the other huddle in this first-round series, running point guard for Memphis, is a player who knows Indiana George well.

“That guy,” Mike Conley said, “was lethal.”

Growing up within a few miles of each other in Indianapolis, as friends and adversaries, Hill and Conley never dreamed they would one day leave a mark on the same NBA playoff series.

Memphis won Game 1 in part because Conley, a 23-year-old playoff tenderfoot, went toe-to-toe with Tony Parker, the Spurs’ three-time All-Star. The Spurs evened the series in Game 2 in part because Indiana George finally showed up in the second half, scoring 14 of his 16 points.

The two hoopsters from the Hoosier state go way back, central figures in an Indianapolis basketball tradition that now fills half an NBA roster.

Now 24, Hill was once a ?scoring star at Broad Ripple High, a city school without much of a basketball reputation, where he averaged a state-leading 36.2 points as a senior in 2005 before playing college ball at hometown IUPUI.

Indiana George was fearless, with a you-can’t-stop-me-or-even-hope-to-contain-me swagger. Indiana George didn’t care who was on the floor with him, or who was assigned to guard him.

Indiana George once scored 49 points in a high school game, without stepping foot on the court in the fourth quarter.

“He could score in so many different ways,” said Conley, who watched Hill tie his NBA career-high of 30 points in his last trip to Memphis on March 27. “Nobody could stop him.”

Conley played at Lawrence North, a prestigious suburban hoops factory where he wasn’t even the most famous player in the Class of 2006. Before he became a limping cautionary tale, Greg Oden would go on to be Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, a consensus collegiate player of the year alongside Conley at Ohio State and the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.

Though a year older, Hill knew Conley from their schoolboy battles, elite AAU tournaments and summer pick-up games.

“Mike is a true point guard,” Hill said. “He sees the floor well and gets everyone involved.”

Even after Memphis made Conley the fourth pick in the 2007 draft, three selections after Oden went to Portland, he couldn’t shake his second-fiddle label. He split time his first two seasons with Kyle Lowry at the point, a situation Conley now calls “the lowest point I’ve had my entire basketball career.”

When Lionel Hollins took over as head coach in January 2009, one of his first moves was to install Conley at point guard and leave him there.

“If I didn’t have to go through what I’ve gone through, I wouldn’t be where I’m at,” Conley said.

In the first two games of his first postseason, Conley averaged 14 points, seven assists and 5.5 rebounds.

Hill has averaged 15.5 points, six rebounds and three steals. After a two-point first half in Game 2, Indiana George exploded in the second half to get the Spurs over the hump.

Though he has made just 5 of 16 field goals, Hill has gone to the foul line a team-high 22 times, converting 19 — testament to the forcefulness Popovich has asked of him. Hill remains key for the Spurs even after Manu Ginobili’s return from an injury moved him back to the bench in Game 2.

“Manu’s injury has nothing to do with George,” Popovich said. “Even with Manu, he’s got to play well for us.”

In a way, Hill and Conley have been preparing for this moment since they were teenagers. Playing high school ball in Indianapolis in the mid-2000s was like attending NBA prep school.

In addition to Hill, Conley and Oden, Indy was also home to future NBAers Eric Gordon, Courtney Lee and Jeff Teague. Another, Jared Jeffries, played in nearby Bloomington.

“Any given night, you were going against someone who is in the NBA now,” Hill said.

On Saturday, in a Game 3 in Memphis that could again swing momentum in the series, it will just be the two of them.

Indiana George and Indiana Mike. Just like old times.

Spurs defense rises, better late than never

By Jeff McDonald

HOUSTON — There was a time that a game between the Spurs and Houston Rockets was likely to result in more bruises than points. The two teams would fight and claw and scratch and defend, and the first to 90 usually won.

“That was that damn Van Gundy guy,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, referring to former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. “If he and I got together, we were lucky if both teams got over 50.”

On nights like Saturday, when the Spurs won a 115-107 shootout at the Toyota Center the likes of which have become the norm for these teams, those days seem like peach-basket ancient history.

The Spurs did not play the 48 minutes of championship-level defense they would like to, but they did play about two minutes worth in the fourth quarter.

In the end, that was enough.

Putting the brakes on a seesaw final frame, the Spurs (54-12) held Houston without a field goal for the last two minutes, got a tie-breaking basket from Tim Duncan and put the game away at the foul line.

“They were hitting big shots. We were hitting big shots,” said Spurs forward Richard Jefferson, whose team clinched its 14th straight season series against Houston. “At the end, it was just about getting stops.”

The arrival of coach Rick Adelman to Houston in 2007, as well as Yao Ming’s near-constant state of injury, has infused some offense into the I-10 rivalry.

Once upon a time, the Spurs and Rockets played 28 consecutive games without either eclipsing 100 points. After Saturday, both teams have surpassed triple digits in four of the past five meetings.

Tony Parker scored 21 points to lead a season-high eight Spurs players in double figures, Manu Ginobili chipped in 19, and Antonio McDyess, in his third start at center, logged 12 points and 12 rebounds.

But the Rockets, on the wrong end of the playoff bubble at 33-34, made sure the Spurs would not make it to Monday’s nationally televised rematch at Miami without a fight.

“We were right there with the best team in the league,” said Houston’s Chuck Hayes, whose team led 82-81 heading into the fourth. “One bounce, one loose ball, one basket in their advantage, and they were able to win.”

When the Spurs needed their biggest basket late in the game, they found it in a place both familiar and surprising: Duncan in the low post.

At times an afterthought in the Spurs’ offense this season, Duncan had just two field goals late into the fourth quarter, when Hayes tied the score at 107 on a pair of free throws. Duncan responded by posting the 6-foot-6 Hayes on the block, whirling and throwing in a jump hook straight out of 2005. On the Spurs’ next trip, Duncan made two free throws to extend the lead to 111-107.

“We know at any given time, T.D. is a threat on the low post,” guard George Hill said. “We just have to feed him sometimes.”

Of course, Duncan’s late points — which pushed him into double figures — wouldn’t have mattered if the Spurs hadn’t found a way to get, in Ginobili’s words, “the stops we weren’t getting in the third quarter and earlier in the fourth.”

Particularly, they had to find a way to slow Rockets guard Kevin Martin, who finished with 28 points on 9-of-23 shooting.

Before Duncan’s basket on Hayes, there had been three lead changes and six ties in the fourth quarter. The Spurs’ defense tightened just enough to ensure there would be no more of either.

Houston went 0 for 4 in the final 2:02, with Martin and Courtney Lee — another thorn in the Spurs’ side with 16 points — each missing twice.

“Everybody would like to keep teams in the 90s, but it doesn’t always happen,” Popovich said. “I thought we made a lot of good stops when we needed them against a team that really penetrates well.”

It was enough to make Popovich almost miss that Van Gundy guy. Almost.