Rockets pick up first win without injured Paul

HOUSTON — Coach Mike D’Antoni doesn’t believe that the Houston Rockets cleared a mental hurdle by winning without injured star guard Chris Paul for the first time this season.

“Nah, we don’t think that much,” D’Antoni said after the Rockets’ 108-101 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, led by James Harden‘s 39 points and 10 assists. “We’ve just got to have other guys step up, and they can. Obviously, without CP3, it’s not good. We don’t want to do that, and he calms a lot of stuff down, but I don’t think we were mentally [struggling].”

Houston was 0-5 without Paul, who will miss at least two weeks with a Grade 2 strain of his left hamstring suffered in Thursday’s loss to the Miami Heat, a game the Rockets led by eight points before Paul exited with 6:43 remaining in the second quarter.

“I didn’t even know that stat,” Rockets forward PJ Tucker said. “I never thought about it. Whoever’s ready to play, we’ve got to play. Whoever’s playing, we’ve just got to try to win — period. At this point, every single game matters, every game counts. So whoever’s ready, it’s next man up, and get ready to play.”

Tucker and the Rockets were well aware of the ugly rebounding stats from their loss to the Heat, who grabbed 20 more boards than Houston and scored 28 second-chance points. The Rockets accomplished their goal of drastic improvement in those categories against the Spurs, winning the rebounding battle by a 58-43 margin and holding San Antonio to seven second-chance points, with center Clint Capela (23) and Tucker (16) both setting season rebounding highs.

“We have a small margin of error,” said Rockets guard Eric Gordon, who had 18 points and six assists. “We have to do all the little things to win. We did that tonight.”

Paul will miss an extended period during what appears to be the most difficult stretch of the Rockets’ schedule. Starting with the Spurs, who had won five of their previous six games, Houston faces nine consecutive teams with legitimate playoff hopes in a three-week span, including some of the NBA’s elite, such as the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Milwaukee Bucks.

“Everyone needs to step up because we don’t have a choice,” said Capela, who had his second 20-20 game of the season, with 21 points in addition to his 23 rebounds.

After a sluggish first half, the Rockets got a big boost from reserve wing Gerald Green. He scored 12 of his 15 points in the third quarter — when Houston scored 43 points, two more than its halftime total — by hitting all four of his 3-point attempts in the frame.

The biggest burden, of course, falls on Harden’s shoulders. He wasn’t particularly efficient as a scorer on Saturday, scoring his 39 points on 12-of-34 shooting. He was clutch, however.

The Spurs rallied from a 17-point deficit to take a one-point lead with 3:03 remaining. After a Houston timeout, Harden hit a step-back 3. Gordon hit a 3 with 1:48 remaining to give the Rockets the lead for good, punctuating a possession that Capela and Tucker extended with offensive rebounds. Harden put the finishing touches on the win, hitting another step-back with 1:05 remaining and three dagger free throws with 39.4 seconds left.

“Obviously, we know how important Chris is to this team, but we needed to just bounce back — period,” said Harden, who became the first Houston player since Tracy McGrady in 2006-07 to score at least 30 points in six consecutive games. “Whether Chris was in the lineup or out of the lineup, coming off a loss, we always want to bounce back and especially protect home court. I’m proud of the guys.”

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