The Cleveland Cavaliers were nearly up to the challenge at one of the NBA's most difficult venues. The next one doesn't figure to be easy, either.
The Cavaliers close out their longest trip of the season in a city where they haven't won in nearly 10 years when they visit the rolling Houston Rockets on Friday night.
Cleveland (27-10) had visions of handing San Antonio its first regular-season home loss in 10 months after jumping out to a 15-point first-quarter advantage and leading by three early in the fourth, but couldn't quite hold on in Thursday's 99-95 loss that snapped an eight-game winning streak. The victory was the Spurs' 32nd straight at home since an overtime loss to the Cavaliers on March 12.
The Cavaliers shot 59.1 percent during a 32-point opening quarter but couldn't keep that pace as the Spurs' league-best defense stiffened down the stretch, limiting Cleveland to 8 of 22 shooting over the final 11-plus minutes.
''They did a good job of taking us out of our sets, but we also had some really good looks that didn't go down for us,'' said LeBron James, who finished with 22 points but had just eight in the second half.
Cleveland also committed 18 turnovers, its highest total since Dec. 17.
“Having 18 turnovers for 19 points against this team, who executes so well and don't make many mistakes themselves, we've got to take care of the ball a little bit more,” James said.
The Cavaliers now attempt to regroup and shake off any lingering fatigue as they conclude a six-game trek with a third game in four days. They'll also be working against history in Friday's matchup, as they've lost eight straight in Houston since a 104-102 overtime victory on March 26, 2006, and 23 of their last 26 there.
James had 37 points in the Cavaliers' last visit to Toyota Center on March 1, but missed two free throws in the final seconds of overtime in a 105-103 loss.
Houston (21-19) has won 10 of 12 at home and a season-high five straight overall after fending off determined Minnesota 107-104 on Wednesday to move two games above .500 for the first time this season.
''I think we would have let this game slip away (early in the season),” guard James Harden said. “But no matter how bad we struggled, especially in the first three quarters, we locked in and we got stops when we needed to and we just scored.”
An improved defense has helped trigger the Rockets' turnaround, as they're yielding 96.6 points per game during the win streak after allowing 116.5 in losing their previous four. They'll likely need that trend to continue to earn a seventh consecutive win in the series, as the Cavaliers are 19-2 when scoring 100 or more.
Houston also overcame a 7 of 30 performance from 3-point range against the Timberwolves, a departure from its recent form. The Rockets shot 43.0 percent from beyond the arc over their previous nine games.
Patrick Beverley went 17 of 27 over the first eight of that stretch before sitting out Wednesday's game for a personal matter.
Cleveland's J.R. Smith is also shooting well, having gone 27 of 54 from 3 over a six-game run in which he's averaged 19.5 points.