Rockets sans Paul host surging Spurs

HOUSTON — If the Rockets were so inclined, they could take the news regarding veteran point guard Chris Paul and his balky left hamstring as a relative positive, with a Friday afternoon MRI revealing a Grade-2 strain that will sideline Paul for a minimum of two weeks.

The Rockets (16-15) had their season-high-tying five-game winning streak snapped on Thursday in Miami after Paul was lost to his latest in a troubling series of hamstring injuries. Without Paul, the Rockets coughed up a 16-point lead before rallying to reclaim their advantage in the fourth quarter only to fall 101-99 when Eric Gordon missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Houston, 0-5 with Paul sidelined this season, will contest at least seven games before Paul is re-evaluated in two weeks, the first of which comes on Saturday at Toyota Center against the resurgent San Antonio Spurs. Should he miss no more than three weeks, which matched reported speculation, Paul would sit roughly 10 games, putting him on track to return on Jan. 13 at Orlando. How the Rockets, who recently appeared to regain their footing following an uneven start to the season, perform without Paul could shape their postseason aspirations.

“That’s a part of the game. Figure it out,” said Rockets guard James Harden, who is averaging 37.6 points over seven games and posted his fifth consecutive 30-plus-point game by scoring 35 against the Heat. “My injuries have been opportunities for other guys to step up. Keep going.”

The Rockets have been without Paul for multiple stretches since he arrived via trade prior to last season. Houston had some success during the 2017-18 campaign with Paul unavailable but infamously collapsed in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals after Paul suffered a hamstring injury in the waning moments of its Game 5 victory at Toyota Center. The Rockets have continued those struggles sans Paul this season, rendering what lies ahead an unknown.

“It’s one of the things that you don’t know until you go through it,” Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said. “Good thing, bad thing, you don’t know.”

The Spurs (18-15) claimed their third consecutive win on Friday, bludgeoning the Minnesota Timberwolves 124-98 at AT&T Center. San Antonio has won 7 of 8 games after losing to the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 5 and dropping three games under .500. Their improved play has netted the Spurs first place in the Southwest Division, two games up on the Rockets in the win column.

San Antonio blitzed the Timberwolves, shooting 52.9% overall while hitting 19 of 33 3-pointers and recording 36 assists on 46 field goals. But the Spurs’ defense, much maligned during their early-season struggles, has methodically returned to respectable levels. The Spurs have allowed an opponent to eclipse 100 points only once since that loss to the Lakers, producing a 99.4 defensive rating during that stretch.

“I thought our defense was pretty solid again,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said following the win over Minnesota. “We’re just trying to get better and better at that end of the court.”