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Houston Rockets @ San Antonio Spurs on 12/25/2013

I thought this year would finally be the year the Spurs were no longer invincible.

They had come off that nightmare-inducing Finals.  Duncan was 37, the age at which Hakeem, Shaq, and currently Garnett entered a stage of interminable decline.  Ginobilli had looked terrible throughout the entire playoffs, and the West looked to be tougher than ever with the rise of Golden State and the Rockets.  How would the Spurs manage? Not well, as I predicted that they would struggle to grab the 4th seed.

Well, today the San Antonio Spurs are the 3rd best team in the Western Conference with a 22-6 record.  Shows what I know.

While the Spurs have looked as timeless as ever, the roles of the big 3 of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobilli have diminished.  Gregg Popovich has cut their minutes to the point that they barely play 30 minutes a game, but he instead relies on an incredibly deep bench and team-based basketball to do the job for him.  They rarely iso, and prefer to rely on cuts and screens to get their myriad of jump shooters open, especially on the corner 3’s.  This, more than any other team in the league, is where Houston’s much maligned perimeter defense must pull themselves together if they want to stop the Spurs’ attack.  The 3 point attack of Golden State and Portland have been the subject of much discussion throughout this season, but San Antonio is the league’s 3rd best 3-point shooting team and practically tied with those teams (.405 to.403 to .402).

Key point of the game: Howard’s post game

Rahat mentioned during the game against Dallas how the development of Dwight Howard’s post game is more important than any one victory or defeat.  But it is one thing to put up amazing numbers against Andre Drummond, who still needs work on defensive fundamentals despite his gaudy blocks, or the Dallas mess at center.  It is another thing to face the best big man since Hakeem.  Howard was pretty quiet last time against San Antonio, but he only took 6 shots while Harden led the Rockets to victory with 31 points.  But with James hobbled by his ankle, the pressure will be for Howard’s offense to carry the team in his biggest challenge yet.

Injury Report:

While Harden has missed the past two games, he has stated that he hopes to be ready for this game, though his status will likely be a game time decision.  Asik and Greg Smith will likely be out.  Meanwhile, the San Antonio Spurs, thanks to their low minutes, will be perfectly healthy, making a troubling matchup even more dangerous.

Rotation Spotlight:

 Marco Belinelli

Marco Belinelli

If anyone symbolizes San Antonio’s strategy of screens and team basketball, it is Marco Belinelli.  The recently signed Spurs guard is shooting over 50% from long range this season, and just this past Thursday went off for 28 points against the Golden State Warriors.  Belinelli is very much the sort of shooting guard which gives a healthy Harden fits, as he likes to run around with screens until he gets open – and Harden is not healthy.  Pay special attention to his first few shots, as Belinelli is very much a hot or cold sort of player.  Out of San Antonio’s 28 games, he has only had 5 games where his FG% is in the 40s, as it continually fluctuates from games where he looks unstoppable like against the Warriors to San Antonio’s last game against the Raptors, where Belinelli went 2-7 and missed all five of his 3 pointers.

 Game tips off at 7:00 Central time on ESPN.

Also on a lighter note, if anything symbolizes the transition away from the big 3, check out their most recent HEB commercial with the debut of Kawhi Leonard.  Makes me nostalgic for Texas again.

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About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.