It won't just be a battle for state pride when the Houston Rockets host the San Antonio Spurs tonight, but also one for ground in the Southwest Division. San Antonio is currently in first place, and Houston is still struggling. The Rockets are currently seven games behind the Spurs and have lost two straight.
Both teams last met in San Antonio on December 7, with the experienced Spurs giving the young Rockets a lesson in how to play the game. The Spurs won 114-92 and played an extremely balanced offensive game. The team had a total of 33 assists and out-rebounded Houston 50-37, making it clear that the Southwest Division belonged to it.
That may be, but Houston would love to have a victory at home tonight. Head coach Kevin McHale has only just recently returned to the team following the tragic passing of his daughter, and a win would certainly mean a lot.
It won't be easy against the red-hot Spurs, who are on a four-game winning streak. Houston must thus be fully focused going into this game and be willing to play a balanced game rather than just the run-and-gun.
In doing so, it could do just enough to come away with a win.
Time: Monday, December 10, 8 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, Fox Sports Southwest
Records: San Antonio Spurs (17-4) vs. Houston Rockets (9-10)
Betting Lines: San Antonio (-6 1/2), Houston (+6 1/2)
Injuries: Stephen Jackson (finger, out), Kawhi Leonard (knee, doubtful), DeJuan Blair (ankle, doubtful), James Harden (ankle, game-time decision), Omer Asik (flu, expected to play)
Key Storyline: Can Houston Get Past Dangerous Spurs?
If there is one thing that the Rockets have going for them in this game, it's their home record. The team has gone 7-4 at the Toyota Center this year, clearly more comfortable on their home court than they are on the road.
Contrastingly, the Spurs have performed very well on the road, going 10-2. Their experienced squad has proven that they will play the same tough game wherever and whenever. In Houston, they will look to extend their winning streak to five games and extend their lead in the division.
This will easily be Houston's toughest home game of the season. Thirty-six-year-old Tim Duncan is having his best season since 2009, and Tony Parker is showing even more growth and improvement as a point guard.
Houston has talent, but its core group may be just a little young to consistently stop these two veteran players. James Harden and Chandler Parsons can keep it in the game, but it will take more than just them to give the Rockets a shot at victory.
This game has the makings to be a close one, and it is just a matter of Houston coming together to make it so.
Key Matchup: Omer Asik vs. Boris Diaw
With DeJuan Blair injured, the Spurs are at a disadvantage in the paint. The man is just 6'7", but plays a phenomenal low-post game and is great at using his size to create mismatches.
Him being out means that Boris Diaw will likely start at center, which gives the Spurs a tougher battle at the 5.
Diaw is only 6'8", 235 pounds and has never been much of a defensive big man. He has averaged just 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds this season compared to 9.4 points and 4.9 boards for his career. Against Houston, he'll need to have a great game in the paint for one reason.
Enter Rockets center Omer Asik, who has superior size at 7'0", 255 pounds and also ranks fourth in the NBA with 11.5 rebounds per game. He is in a prime position to have a great game against the Spurs tonight, particularly playing against a weaker defender in Diaw.
Just the same, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a master at getting the best out of his reserves. He has likely had Diaw watch plenty of tape of Asik, and the two have almost certainly formulated a plan on how to stop the Rockets center.
Asik had better bring his best game with him and not get cocky against a smaller center, lest he want to be the victim of Popovich's phenomenal coaching. This matchup is his to lose, and the Rockets will lose the game if he loses against Diaw.
X-Factor: Chandler Parsons
Now that teammate James Harden is back in playmaker mode, it is important that Parsons have a solid game. He has not been himself since bruising his shoulder against the Toronto Raptors on November 27, averaging 14.3 points on just 38 percent shooting over Houston's last five games.
Granted, a lot of Parsons' recent struggles have to do with the fact that most of his field-goal attempts have come from behind the three-point line. Since hurting his shoulder, he has not participated in any contact drills.
Just the same, he cannot solely rely on the three-ball against the Spurs. He has the size at 6'9", 227 pounds to drive the lane and draw fouls, which he must do if his shoulder is not at its absolute worst. Basketball is a sport that involves contact, and Parsons cannot simply avoid it just because his prowess from long range allows him to.
He must thus mix his game up a bit tonight. He needs to incorporate his mid-range jumper and not be afraid to take a layup. His three-point shot is important, but he must only use it as necessary.
Parsons has so much potential to become a viable scoring threat in the NBA, but he cannot do that until he is willing to diversify his offense. His first test in that comes tonight against San Antonio, and Houston will have a great chance at winning the game if he passes.
Houston's performance tonight will definitely be better than its first against San Antonio this season. Kevin McHale will have a plan going in, and the Rockets will execute it to the fullest of their abilities.
Unfortunately, that will still not be enough against the deep and talented Spurs. Houston is just too young and inexperienced to keep up with San Antonio, even at the Toyota Center. The game will be closer, but not by much.
San Antonio's balanced attack will be in full swing, with everyone from Tim Duncan to Tony Parker to even Danny Green doing their fair share on offense. Duncan will also be the Spurs' dominant force on defense, going after every rebound and even blocking some shots.
Who will win?
James Harden and Chandler Parsons will do all they can to keep Houston in the game, but Parsons' shoulder will still be too sore for him to get fully involved on the inside. Both he and Harden will put up a good number of points, but the rest of the Rockets will struggle to maintain consistency in the second half.
This is when San Antonio will slowly start to pull away. Key threes from Manu Ginobili and Green will set the tone for a Spurs run that will dig a hole from which the Rockets will not be able to get out.
A pair of Houston runs will keep the team in the game, but it will not be able to re-take the lead. This game belongs to the Spurs, who will only further establish themselves as the NBA's best following the final buzzer.
San Antonio Spurs 107, Houston Rockets 98