Rockets send loud message to NBA's best

March 24, 2013

HOUSTON – Houston Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson likes to say Greg Smith is "ox strong."

And now we know what it would look like if oxen could dunk. Smith brought disgrace upon the Splitter family by dunking on favorite son Tiago with such disrespect, such obscenity, such brazen force that, had this been a playground game, Splitter would have had to go home, drink a cup of warm milk and go right to bed.

"I'm gonna put that on my wall," Smith said.

It being an NBA game – one with playoff implications for both teams that Houston won 96-95 at Toyota Center – Splitter stuck around, but if this is going to be a first-round series in the Western Conference playoffs (which it could well be), the Rockets (38-31) sent their message to the Spurs (53-16), and Smith punctuated it in bright red ink.

That message had something to do with physicality. The Rockets are a pretty team. The play fast and free and it seems like they can all shoot, but they tend to get killed on the glass and in the paint whenever center Omer Asik is out of the game. Jeremy Lin gets a lot of steals, but this isn't a particularly good defensive team on the perimeter either.

They certainly aren't supposed to beat the Spurs in a (relatively) low-possession grinder that comes down to the final possession. But James Harden made a hanging, leaning 17-footer with 4.5 seconds left, Tim Duncan couldn't get off a clean look over Asik on the other end and there you had it.

"We know that if we can beat them, we can beat anybody," Chandler Parsons said.

That final play typified the night. Rockets coach Kevin McHale said the plan was to have Asik in the game whenever Duncan was and see if Asik could handle him without any help. As much as McHale believes in Asik's defense, that's still one of the best players of all time we're talking about. It was a gamble, but Duncan (who had been red-hot lately) went 7-for-18.

The strategy paid off, and it gave Houston a chance, even as Tony Parker started to take over in the fourth quarter. Parker, returning from a severely sprained ankle, scored 12 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, making all three of his field goals and all six of his free throws to help erase an eight-point Houston lead.

But right in the middle of what should have been San Antonio coldly assembling its weapon like a bored infantryman, Smith came galloping down the lane, caught a pass from Lin and put Splitter, as Smith said it, "in the rim."

That was with 9:44 to play and it put Houston up by seven. But what McHale considered the biggest play of the game came eight minutes later, after Parker had gone to work, when a Manu Ginobili steal set up Danny Green for what should have been a layup and a six-point lead with 1:24 left. Rockets guard Patrick Beverly came from the other end of the floor to slap Green's layup off the backboard, Chandler Parsons hit a 3-pointer and suddenly it was a one-point game.

"That was a phenomenal block," McHale said.

That Beverly was in the game at all was perhaps something of a harbinger for a team that is still trying to figure out itself. Beverly played nearly as many minutes at the point (24) as starter Jeremy Lin did (26), because McHale thought he could better defend Parker.

As successful as the Rockets have been with their 5,000-rpm identity this year, there is a growing sense they could stand to upshift to a more physical gear every now and then. They traded away Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson, a pair of finesse power forwards, for Thomas Robinson, who is antithetical to that term. They're going with Beverly now for defense. They're trying to strengthen a weakness.

Sunday night was progress.

"It was a game we won more on the defensive end," McHale said.

The Spurs, naturally, had their own perspective. They griped about Harden, who took 17 free throws (and made 15) on the way to scoring a game-high 29 points.

"I don't think he earned 17 free throws," Duncan said.

Danny Green also was annoyed.

"He's good at finding hands and arms and he reaches and will make you foul him," Green said. "You pretty much have to play defense without your hands."

Rockets fans will point out the irony of that complaint coming from within the Spurs locker room, but however legitimate the calls may be, Harden does lead the NBA in both free-throw attempts (10.2) and makes (8.8) per game.

This is his game, and he applied it to poor Kawhi Leonard with about a minute left and Houston down by three, inducing a Leonard foul on a 3-pointer. Harden made two of the shots and after two misses on the Spurs' end, Houston had the ball on its own sideline with 9.3 seconds left.

Harden inbounded it, curled off an Asik screen and buried the jumper to put the Rockets up one. Duncan couldn't score over Asik at the horn, and the Rockets beat the Spurs for the first time in four tries.

"I don't think we made as many shots as we wanted to," Harden said, "but I think our defense stepped up big at times. That shows our maturity."