Published January 31, 2017
HOUSTON -- What was once a legitimate concern for the Rockets over how big a hole they'd find themselves in after opening the season with seven of eight games on the road turned into glee following their victory in San Antonio on Wednesday night.
With their 101-99 win, the Rockets (5-3) closed a five-game road swing that took them through Cleveland and New York, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and San Antonio with a 3-2 mark that seemed improbable given the amount of time needed to build chemistry under a new coach and with a largely reconfigured roster and rotation.
Instead, the Rockets will host the Spurs on Saturday night at Toyota Center somewhat galvanized not only by their successful road trip, but by the gritty performance they showcased in outlasting San Antonio in the finale of their roadie.
"We know how good we are and we know how good we can be," said Rockets forward Ryan Anderson after the win. "It's tough to win in this building. They're a team that obviously has some great players and to get a win in here, you've got to be happy."
The Rockets continue to learn on the fly, having entrusted James Harden with the lead guard duties while also overcoming a rotation shortened by the loss of guard Patrick Beverley, who is slated to return from knee surgery later this month. Houston coach Mike D'Antoni tweaked his lineup midway through the road trip, inserting swingman Corey Brewer aside Harden and shifting guard Eric Gordon to the bench in search of some offensive punch with the second unit.
Harden has been sensational, averaging 30.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and a league-leading 13 assists. He leads the NBA in assist percentage (62.0), is fourth in usage rate (33.8 percent), and entered Friday third in player efficiency rating (32.3). Because the Rockets have relied so heavily on Harden to both score and facilitate, it's no shock their offense collapses in those 10.4 minutes per game when he rests.
Houston owns a 10.7 net rating in the 301 minutes Harden has played. Without Harden, the Rockets' net rating is minus-28.5 over 83 minutes. When the second unit squandered an 11-point second-half lead against the Spurs, Harden was forced to reenter earlier than usual in the fourth quarter to stave off the San Antonio rally.
"We ask so much from him," D'Antoni said of Harden.
The Spurs (6-3) snapped a surprising three-game home losing skid with a 96-86 win over the Pistons on Friday night. When they opened the season with a 29-point drubbing of the Warriors on the road, it seemed like business as usual for the Spurs.
But San Antonio has been undermined by backcourt injuries, with Tony Parker (knee) returning from a three-game hiatus one game after Danny Green (eye) made his season debut. Like Houston, the Spurs underwent roster upheaval during the offseason, and the result of those changes has been basketball not quite up to snuff.
"It could be a bunch of things but the bottom line is we've just got to get it done," said Spurs guard Patty Mills. "And it's not like we haven't got it done before. We've done it, we know how to do it, it's a matter of going out and getting it done. We understand that it's not going to be easy every night and it shouldn't be."