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.

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