Wednesday, June 7

Sitting out and stepping up: Takeaways from Rockets’ loss to Spurs

Losses could help the Rockets get a better player in the draft. Maybe. Maybe not.

Having the players that they already have, players that will be back next season, getting better is good, too.

They can only get better by playing hard and playing to win. They did that Monday. They got better throughout the game, going from atrocious defense to start to a solid effort through the second half. They played with determination that six weeks ago was lacking in many games that began like Monday’s.

It was not enough. Their last shot to force overtime, a K.J. Martin 3-pointer at the buzzer, hit the rim, started down, came out, went off the backboard and then circled the rim before spinning out, sent the Spurs to a 123-120 win at Toyota Center. But on the night the Rockets sat veterans Eric Gordon, Christian Wood and Dennis Schröder, as they likely will throughout the season’s remaining six games, the young players getting the minutes in their place made good use of their time.

“Good effort, really good effort,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “Some big-time shot-making toward the end. Proud, really proud of the group, especially since we had to play small toward the end.”

The Rockets went with small lineups, with 6-foot-6 Martin at center, before with Wood out, Alperen Sengun left the game with a bruised lower leg. That group forged the last of the Rockets’ final comeback, with the Rockets outscoring the Spurs, 36-27, in the fourth quarter.

“We’re not afraid,” guard Josh Christopher said. “He took that shot with confidence. He knew it was supposed to go in. The ball goes in and out twice on the same shot. You can’t ask for a better shot.”

They could ask for a better result. Though sitting three veterans will make it more difficult down the stretch, the Rockets demonstrated that those still playing will play to win.

“It’s important so we can finish the season with a smile on our face,” Christopher said. “I think it’s a key factor in these last games, just finishing strong.”

1. A rotation change and a different three-guard lineup

With Gordon and Schröder removed from the rotation, playing time has opened up for rookie guard Daishen Nix, which is very much part of the plan. But there is also something to consider with the guards that were already playing.

On Monday, the first day with the season-closing, relatively veteran free lineup, Jalen Green played more minutes than he ever has and took 24 shots, more than he has in any game. Kevin Porter Jr. played 36 minutes, putting up 22 shots, his most this season. Christopher played 30 minutes, his second-most of his rookie season and produced 20 points and six assists, three from his career high scoring game and one from his best assist game.

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The benefit of having that much playing time for three young guards (with Nix getting another 13 ½ minutes) is not just that they are gaining experience. It is that they are getting it together.

That was especially evident with Porter and Green.

“Scoot is definitely not a selfish player at all,” Silas said of Porter. “There’s times he has it and gives it up to Jalen. I thought early in the game especially, he was looking ahead and trying to get guys on the move, whether it was Jalen or J.T. (Jae’Sean Tate) or skipping the ball in transition, which shifts the defense. Now, you can attack closeouts.

“It seemed like they had a very together game, those two. They’re starting to find chemistry between the two of them, which is needed for sure. For them to combine for 56 points, is great for us. But I think the main thing that is important for us is the assists, where they combine for 11 assists and only three turnovers.

“With the issues we’ve had with turnovers throughout the season, especially at the beginning of the season, them playing together is good.”

Christopher got much of his playing time with Nix, much as he typically played with Schröder since the veteran guard was acquired at the trade deadline. Playing off the ball has helped Christopher, though he has been up and down for much of the month. With Nix, he can concentrate on looking for his scoring even more than with Schröder, who is more of an instant offense point guard. With Porter and Green, Christopher can attack defenses that are focusing on others.

“This is a time of the season we can see a little more of that, too,” Silas said. “We haven’t had many times those three guys have been on the floor together. Those guys can play a little more together, play off each other and hopefully find some success.”

There are six more games to experiment with lineup combinations. Few can be as interesting when looking ahead as when Green, Porter and Christopher share the floor, especially when Sengun is with them.

“It’s something we’re going to have to do,” Christopher said. “A guy like me, I’m two-way. When those guys are on the court, I can be more focused on playing defense. They’ll be shooting most of the balls. I’ll get mine for sure just because the ball energy finds good basketball players. I had a good crash today in crunch time.

“It was fun. This season I’ve had to play a bunch of different positions with multiple guys. Just finding ways to play basketball my best way possible.”

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2. Oh so close

Martin might not have been looking for glass, but when his shot at the buzzer came off the backboard, everything about it looked good.

Martin thought it was in as it teased the Rockets mercilessly. The shot came off the backboard and started to go down. It came out and went off the glass again, returning to the rim. It circled the rim as if taking a tour before it finally fell out and away.

“I don’t know how it didn’t go in,” Martin said. “Like it went in once, came off, went in again and came off and I was just like – I don’t know what else I can do, so I mean, it was tough. But the way that me and Josh (Christopher) had two big 3s before, actually cutting the game to only a one-shot possession, we fought ’til the end so I’m proud of my guys.

“I felt like that was the best shot that I could see during that time frame, so I just let it go.”

Had his shot fallen, there might have been some luck involved since he likely was not trying to bank it in. The Rockets still would have had to outscore the Spurs in overtime to come away with the win. But they had done so much to get that close, they had made themselves worthy of that good fortune and another chance.

Martin had blocked consecutive shots in the Rockets’ late run. That had become typical of their turnaround. After allowing 54.7 percent shooting and 48 paint points in the first half, the Rockets allowed 38.3 percent shooting and gave up 24 points in the paint in the second half.

“Just being focused and having our teammates’ back,” Martin said. “I mean, we played small. I think it was me and (Jae’Sean) Tate as the biggest guys out there. So, I’m just trying to get rim protection, stay vertical and just give us a chance to get out in transition.”

That brought the game to a last shot. Porter could not get free of Keldon Johnson. Green rushed over but was deep. Porter found Dejounte Murray off Martin, passed to Martin for the final shot and watched and waited and hoped.

When the shot came off, Martin bent over the scorers table with his head down and then into a crouch before teammates came over.

“That was a good look,” Christopher said. “I just try to be there for him. We have guys who are ready for the moment. When he was on the floor, we were like, ‘Good hit, good shot, good shot.’ I always said, ‘all good shots don’t go in.’ If a ball has to rim out twice, I don’t know what else you can do.”

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3. Playing with a season on the line

With the win, the Spurs have won their past four games and moved to within a half game of supplanting the Lakers for the final Western Conference play-in spot. For the Lakers, even being in the play-in represents a failure. For the Spurs, it would be a triumph.

No matter what happens if the Spurs do get to play-in games, or what happens in those games or even in the playoff games that could follow, there is something beneficial about the games they are playing now.

“As you might expect, the more pressure players have, the more that they need to come through, the better for their futures,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “It tells us a lot about them as individuals and as a group. There’s nothing but good that can come of it.

“That’s something that develops throughout the year to get in that kind of position. I’m happy for them that they got themselves in this sort of position. Now, they have to continue to play the way they have been to try to get in. And if they do get in, you get to play the best team in the league.”

That could be true. The Suns swept the Spurs this season, though three of the four games were decided by five or fewer points. The same thinking about the value of the final games of the season could apply to a first-round series. There are benefits to playing and practicing in the postseason, a step that they would hope to take.

It could cost four to seven spots in the draft, depending on how things go for the Spurs and others down the stretch. But that’s not like the Rockets’ chances last season to fall from the chance at the first pick all the way to 18 if lottery luck had been bad and the Thunder would have come away with their pick.

The Spurs clearly want to have the chance to fall back in the draft order. The Rockets, once they finish with a pair of games against the Kings, can benefit from playing teams like the Spurs with a great deal on the line.

The Rockets cannot get to the play-in or playoff experiences this season. That has long been out of reach. But playing teams that are in the running – after the Kings, they have games against the Timberwolves, Nets, Raptors and Hawks remaining – can be much better than a few games last week mopping up a shell of the Trail Blazers.

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