By Mike Monroe
HOUSTON — Two minutes into the second quarter of the Spurs’ first loss of the young season, Matt Bonner drilled a 3-pointer that capped a 13-2 run to tie things up with the Houston Rockets at 23-23.
It would be more than 30 minutes and eight straight misses before the Spurs would hit another from long range, and by then it did nothing but make a huge deficit slightly less embarrassing.
The Spurs came in with convincing victories over the Grizzlies — the team that ran them out of the playoffs last spring — and the Clippers, the biggest winners in post-lockout free agency. But Thursday, they were awful in a 105-85 loss that enabled the Rockets to celebrate their home opener in front of an announced sellout crowd of 18,267 at Toyota Center.
Houston was as sharp as the Spurs had been in their Wednesday night home victory over Los Angeles, making 50.6 percent of its shots. Rockets guard Kevin Martin scored 25 in the first three quarters and wasn’t even needed in the final period after Spurs coach Gregg Popovich elected to treat the second half like a preseason game.
In a post-lockout campaign that includes serial sets of back-to-back games and a few sets of three games in three nights, there will be plenty of peculiarities based on the reality of a brutal schedule.
On Thursday there was this: Spurs captain and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, willing and able to play, sitting the entire second half as his coach made a judgment based on the quirkiness of a 66-game schedule compressed into 120 days.
Popovich had a perfectly understandable explanation for limiting Duncan to just over 15 minutes of playing time and holding Manu Ginobili, who played only the halfway through the third period, to under 20 minutes.
The rationale came in bullet points:
“Third game in four nights.”
“On the road.”
“We weren’t playing well.”
Duncan exited the Spurs locker room without answering questions.
The ultra-competitive Ginobili wasn’t entirely pleased with throwing in the towel early, but understood the reasoning.
“(The Rockets) played a terrific game,” he said, “and after a back-to-back Pop never wants to risk going with everything to make our comeback because it gets dangerous and they just killed us.”
Ginobili predicted there will be more nights when Popovich holds Duncan, now 35, out of big chunks of games, perhaps holding him out of a few contests in their entirety.
“In a season like this one, I’m not going to say you’ll see it very often, but kind of often,” he said. “It’s really hard to send everybody to make a huge effort that you’re not sure is going to pay back. Then we have the (game on) Saturday, Jan. 2 and back-to-back (on Jan. 4-5).
“You have to be smart and just let it go and think about the next one.”
Popovich started thinking about Saturday’s game at the ATT Center against the Utah Jazz after the Rockets blitzed the Spurs in the final 4??1/2 minutes of the first half. With Martin leading the way by scoring 15 of his 25 in the game’s decisive stretch, the Rockets took a 34-31 advantage to 58-35 before the Spurs finished with a mini-flurry of their own and cut the lead to 18 at halftime.
“I’m not sure how many times I want to be down 18 in this shortened season and work Timmy, Manu and Tony (Parker) to work us out of that hole,” Popovich said. “Not this early in the season.
“Later on, depending on our situation, it might make more sense. But at this point, it was a great opportunity to treat it like training camp and get a lot of the younger kids out there and treat it like practice.”