HOUSTON — NBA dynasties don’t easily digest defeats by margins of 39, 31 and 34 points.
So when the embarrassing San Antonio Spurs losses stacked early in December the way the sweaty jerseys piled on the floor of the locker room after their 108-101 setback Saturday at the hands of the Houston Rockets, the organization seemed almost flippant in not displaying even the slightest hint of frustration.
“I just thought they deserved a lot of patience with the group [being]two-thirds new,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “I knew that patience is like the first step in showing confidence in somebody or in a group.”
Step 2 in this process involves the players justifying Popovich’s faith by continuing to make strides toward achieving continuity through trust in one another and familiarity from time spent together on and off the court. Despite the loss to the Rockets, the Spurs believe they’re getting there.
If it happens, the Spurs might actually salvage a season long thought to be headed for disappointment after losing two All-NBA defenders in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and suffering through the season-ending injury of another in Dejounte Murray, not to mention the fact Manu Ginobili retired.
With 10 new players on the roster (counting two-way players), San Antonio appears to be trending toward its consistency of old.
“We’ve gotten better for sure,” LaMarcus Aldridge said after finishing with 18 points and six rebounds. “We’re playing a better brand of basketball. I think we’ve learned how to play with each other.”
Until the third quarter of Saturday’s game, that certainly appeared to be the case. San Antonio built an early seven-point lead in the second quarter, and led at intermission 43-41 despite shooting just 38.6 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from range.
Jakob Poeltl pins Eric Gordon’s layup to the backboard and gets the rebound.
But Houston changed the complexion of the game in the third quarter with a high-powered display from long range. Houston knocked down nine 3-pointers in the third quarter, which ranked as its most long-range connections of any quarter so far this season. The Rockets drained 69.2 percent of those attempts, outscoring San Antonio 43-26 in the quarter to go up 84-69 at the buzzer on Gary Clark‘s 25-footer. Houston jumped out to an 18-9 run over the first six minutes of the quarter.
Eric Gordon then handed Houston its largest lead of the night (17 points) just 15 seconds into the fourth quarter on a driving layup.
“We stayed in it and fought,” said DeRozan, who led the Spurs with 28 points and eight assists. “We had a chance. It came down to a couple of rebounds. I thought we could’ve taken advantage of the one-point lead. We fought. We’ve got to be happy about that. But we can’t have the start in third quarter like we had.”
The Spurs also can’t afford to be outworked on the boards the way they were in this one. Houston held the rebounding edge 58-43, but where that showed up most was in second-chance scoring. The Rockets scored 26 second-chance points to San Antonio’s seven.
“The best part of the game for us was we hung in, got it tied up, then gave up a couple of offensive boards, which cost us,” Popovich said. “But we hung in tough. I was real proud of them.”
James Harden hits the dagger to put the game out of reach against the Spurs.
The Spurs captured victory in seven of their previous eight outings going into Saturday’s game, and had become just the second team in NBA history to record five 25-point wins in a six-game span, joining the 1972 Milwaukee Bucks.
But before running off a four-game winning streak starting on Dec. 7, San Antonio had dropped three of its previous five contests by margins of 39, 31, and 34 points.
When the Spurs returned home from a winless two-game trip on Dec. 5, veteran guard Patty Mills said he knew the Spurs would soon turn their fortunes.
“I think it was the mistakes that we were making. They were ones that we knew as a group we’d be able to change and fix,” Mills said. “It’s like, ‘Let’s grind this out, it’s a long season.’ We came into that homestand knowing that we had a great opportunity there. So we came together as a team, knowing that there was a homestand that we had before Christmas, and that we’d get a couple of days off over Christmas.”
Now, the Spurs receive somewhat of a break before closing out their ninth home game of December hosting the Denver Nuggets, before meeting them again on the road, followed by another trip at the LA Clippers. San Antonio closes out the month with a 10th home game against the Boston Celtics.
“The schedule’s been brutal, probably one of the tougher schedules I can remember having this early in the season,” DeRozan said. “But we’re above .500, got a couple days to rest. We’ve got a couple guys that are nicked up, and we get a chance to mentally decompress for a few days and get right back to it.”
When they do, the Spurs hope to build on the continuity they’ve developed up to this point. Throughout it all, San Antonio never lost the belief that it could still compete despite losing so much over the offseason.
“There was always confidence,” Gay said. “It didn’t matter whether we lost a game or not, we knew what we were capable of. I don’t think anybody or anybody in the NBA knows our locker room better than us. It just took time to jell.”
Still, that process isn’t over, and Popovich plans to keep that in mind as the team looks maintain its streak of consecutive playoff appearances, which now stands at 21.
“We’re more together as a group. They trust each other a little more,” Popovich said. “They understand each other a bit more, which is all logical. That’s what would happen with basically a team with eight new guys. I can’t expect them to catch on to everything right away and understand each other. If you expect everything quickly, that’s just not gonna work. It’s gonna hurt their confidence. If it’s new, you’re patient. If it’s something that should have been instilled by now, you’re probably a little bit less patient. It’s not a fine-tuned, in-stone rule. These are human beings.”