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By Jeff Koch on December 28, 2012.

Yowzers. Before both teams started running out of gas in the 4th quarter, I was having trouble catching my breath the action was moving so quickly. It was like the Phoenix Suns’ of D’Antoni-Nash, only quicker and more frenetic. The first half was nearly impossible to get a read on, but the Spurs made a few adjustments in the second half to very subtly take control of the game.

The most important adjustment was with the second unit. In the first half, the Spurs were rolling with the starters, but the Rockets stormed back against our bench, and kept up the momentum to essentially draw even by half. In the second half, the rotations stayed mostly the same, but Patty Mills came in instead of Nando De Colo. Mills is pure scoring on the offensive end, and pure disruption on the defensive end. With Neal out due to injury, the second unit was essentially all playmakers, no scorers. Ginobili, De Colo, and Diaw all look to make passes first. The offense really bogged down in too much play making. Putting Mills in there was like having Neal in there: a designated scorer. Plus, he can handle the ball. Mills also drew a couple of charges and got a couple of steals on defense. It’s no coincidence that the Spurs really started pulling way during Mills’ shift on the floor (and Pop rewarded him with extra playing time with the starters).

Another key development was in the defense. For one, the team just played better and harder, everyone frantically rotating to their assignments. But we also doubled Harden (a total nightmare for opposing defenses) on a few key possessions and came away the better for it. In particular, on a play late in the 3rd quarter, when Tiago came hard with the double at the elbow extended (with Jackson already on him), forced a jump ball, and then drew Harden’s 5th foul on the ensuing jump. The old joke is true: only McHale could stop Harden, and having him off the floor was the best thing for our defense.

Third, Pop really rode Stephen Jackson hard in this game. With Leonard having an off-night, Jackson stepped up and played like a man. There’s really no other word with less meaning that perfectly describes how Jackson plays: he is a man on the court. Hard defense, rebounds in traffic, doing what it takes to win. He played Harden very well, and really helped to stabilize the defense. It’s quite a luxury to have Leonard and Jackson as a 1-2 punch at SF. The wily veteran and the young prodigy. If one is having an off night, the other can usually ably fill in. And the two can both guard 3 positions and play together quite nicely.

With those adjustments (and a few more, I’m sure), the Spurs were able to slowly turn the tide and win the game.

A few other notes from the game:

–Remember the beginning of the year when Tony Parker was slumping? Yeah, those days are gone. Throw out the first couple of weeks, and Parker is playing as well as last year, his career peak. Hell, you could argue he’s playing even better, having an even keener sense of running the offense and almost always making the right play. And his jumper is money in the bank right now. The key play of the game late was a Harden fast break missed layup, followed by a patented Parker twisting layup on the break going the other way.

–I’ll leave the deep analysis to the Rockets watchers, but it does seem like Lin and Harden don’t play very well together. Harden is an all-world player, but needs the ball in his hands. He can score and make plays off the pass, and is really dangerous out there. He is better than Lin. But Lin is also dangerous with the ball in his hands. He would make a perfect 6th man, bringing the same threat and energy off the bench. There’s a reason Pop has always leaned on Ginobili with the second unit: it allows for almost no drop-off the entire game.

–Ginobili had a quietly great game. He may never be as dominant a player as he used to be, but he’s still vitally important, and can control games for stretches at a time.

–Remember when the Spurs and Rockets played slow, grind-it-out games that ended in the low 80s? The score after 3 quarters tonight was 98-92.

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