A battle for Texas pride enters its third chapter on Friday night, when the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs face off once again. San Antonio won the first two meetings, and Houston would love to at least have a shot at a series split by winning the third.
This is certainly possible, as the Rockets have won five in a row and seven of their last eight. In the past two weeks, their record has gone from a lowly 9-11 to a respectable 16-12. For the first time this season, the team is looking like a strong and cohesive unit that could make a lot of noise down the stretch.
The Rockets are still a very young team, however, and that may not bode well against the experienced San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio is playing some great basketball, per usual, and defeating Houston again would extend its winning streak to four games.
The Spurs also happen to be the second-highest scoring team in the league, while Houston ranks first in that department. The stage is set for an offensive onslaught from both sides, but don't get ready for a close game just yet.
Despite its proficient offense, Houston ranks 28th in points allowed, at 102.5 per game. This could damn them against San Antonio's balanced attack, and the game being played on the Spurs' home court surely won't help matters.
Either way, it should be a fun game to watch, especially for those who love high-scoring matchups.
Time: Friday, December 28, 8:30 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, Fox Sports Southwest
Records: Houston Rockets (16-12) vs. San Antonio Spurs (22-8)
Betting Line: Houston (+8), San Antonio (-8)
Injuries: Patrick Patterson (foot, out), Gary Neal (calf, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Can Rockets Use Last Loss to Spurs as Motivation for Friday Win?
The Rockets have played the Spurs twice this season, and lost both times. The first meeting was a 114-92 blowout on December 7, but the second one was a bit more interesting.
That took place on December 10, when Houston guard James Harden missed the game with a sprained ankle. Despite that, the young Rockets were able to take the veteran Spurs to overtime thanks to 38 points and seven assists from point guard Jeremy Lin, who up until this game had struggled with his shooting game.
Mr. Linsanity had plenty of help, including 21 points and 10 rebounds from Omer Asik, 20 from Chandler Parsons and even 17 off the bench from Toney Douglas.
Unfortunately, Spurs point man Tony Parker was able to notch a triple-double (27 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists), and San Antonio was able to pull out a 134-126 victory in Houston.
The Rockets need to use this performance as a motivation tactic on Friday. They were able to play on that level with the Spurs without a star scorer and playmaker in Harden, so there's no telling what they can do with him.
The stage is set for red-hot Houston to have another great game and potentially extend its winning streak to six games. Of course, it's not going to be easy against the veteran Spurs.
Key Matchup: Jeremy Lin vs. Tony Parker
Both the Spurs and Rockets rely on their point guards to be valuable members on both sides of the floor, and this matchup of youth vs. experience will be key in the game's final outcome.
Lin is averaging just 11.9 points and 6.2 assists per game this season, but his performance during Houston's winning streak has been phenomenal. The Harvard grad has averaged 16.6 points and 7.4 assists, plus 1.4 steals, and has shot a highly respectable 55 percent from the field. In doing so, his field goal percentage for the season has risen to 43.
The fact that a three-time champion in Tony Parker had trouble containing Lin the last time the two met is puzzling, as Parker himself has improved his game in the past few seasons. Rather than just be a typical scoring point guard, he has become much more of a distributor and appears more focused on defense.
His season this year has been great. Parker is averaging 18.8 points and 7.2 assists per game, and has also shot an astounding 50.5 percent from the field for the season. For a point guard to have that keen and accurate a scorer's eye is rare, and Parker is one of the main reasons the Spurs have continued to be great in 2012-13.
This time around, Lin needs to be willing to sacrifice his offense for one reason: defend Tony Parker and take him out of the game. Not necessarily stop scoring completely, but just enough so that he can play some tough defense. This is no easy task, but look at the Spurs' two losses before they went on their current streak.
In those games, Parker shot a combined 8-of-23 from the field, scoring 27 total points.
The Rockets' plan on defense must thus be as such: slow down Parker, and slow down the Spurs.
X-Factor: Danny Green
San Antonio's greatest strength is its depth, and that includes young Danny Green. At age 25, he has found his place in the Spurs' lineup, as the starting shooting guard. Green has also seen some time at small forward, and he has added some good scoring variety to the team's offense.
Green has averaged just 10.3 points on the season, but he has shot a respectable 44 percent from the field and 40 percent from long range. The former Blue Devil has also developed a reputation for hitting clutch shots, which is not a bad thing at all.
With Harden back in the Rockets' lineup, the Spurs need Green to be great against Houston. He posted 14 points, six rebounds and five assists in the teams' last meeting, and needs to either duplicate or improve that performance on Friday.
He is an excellent shooter, and the key to beating the streaking Rockets at this point is to score more points than them. Green is great at providing extra offense, and his prowess from long range will be a big help to San Antonio throughout the game.
It won't be easy since he will probably be guarded by James Harden, but that isn't a reason for Green to back down. He needs to be confident in his abilities, which alone could make a difference by the final buzzer.
The Rockets have looked motivated throughout their winning streak, and will continue to do so in their third meeting with the San Antonio Spurs. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and such is the case for Houston's winning streak.
In a close game in San Antonio, the Spurs will win again and take the season series. Nothing against the Rockets, but the Spurs are just too deep and talented, plus have been playing together for a long time. They know how to work together, and they easily have the best team chemistry in the NBA.
Tony Parker will fight tooth and nail to defeat Jeremy Lin in the backcourt, and his overall experience will give him a slight edge. Believe it or not, he's going to have a tough time fighting through the youngster's defense.
Who will win?
Given that, Tim Duncan will carry the team in the paint and have a double-double, while Danny Green and Manu Ginobili sink the key shots from long range. Even Stephen Jackson will get in on the fun, sinking a clutch three in the second half that sends the hometown fans into a frenzy.
On Houston's end, James Harden will lead the way on offense while also playing great D and creating plays for his teammates. It will help keep the score close, but it still won't be enough.
The bad news is that by the end of the night, the Rockets' winning streak will have ended.
The good news, however, is that the San Antonio Spurs will know that they were just in a hard-fought battle, and that Houston is not to be taken lightly down the stretch.
San Antonio Spurs 106, Houston Rockets 101
All statistics in this article are accurate as of December 26, 2012