The key is keeping it up.
James Harden had 20 points and the Rockets slowed down the soaring Spurs with an 88-84 victory. The improved Houston defense held San Antonio to a season low in points and snapped the Spurs' season-best seven-game winning streak.
This, Harden said, is how they should play defense all the time.
"We're more than capable," he said. "So we have to find ourselves. We've got to find that energy, that consistent defensive togetherness every single night."
Houston used an 8-2 run to take a 78-71 lead with about 5 minutes left. Tim Duncan made a hook shot after that, but Harden hit a 3-pointer. A layup by Duncan came next before Harden brought the crowd to its feet with an off-balance 3-pointer from the corner that made it 84-75.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich thought those two 3-pointers were the key to the game.
"One of them we weren't up the way we should have been on a switch and he got a free one," Popovich said. "The next one, he was deep and (Duncan) was all over him and he made a great shot. Those two 3s really changed it."
The Spurs resorted to the Hack-A-Howard tactic soon after that, intentionally fouling Dwight Howard on two straight possessions. He missed all four free throws, and a basket by LaMarcus Aldridge got the Spurs to 86-81.
Kawhi Leonard made a 3-pointer after two free throws by Houston to allow San Antonio to cut the lead to four, but he missed a shot a few seconds later and Houston held on for the victory.
Leonard had 20 points to lead San Antonio. The Spurs struggled on long-range shooting, making just 5 of 19 3-pointers.
It was the first time the Rockets have hosted a game on Christmas since they moved to Houston. The last time the franchise hosted a Christmas game was in 1967 when the team was in San Diego.
The Rockets led by one after three and scored the first nine points of the fourth quarter, powered by five points from Jason Terry, to make it 70-60 with about 10 minutes remaining.
San Antonio got its first points of the quarter soon after that on a 3-pointer by David West to start a 9-0 run that cut it to 70-69. Leonard highlighted that run with a running two-handed dunk.
A layup by Aldridge pushed San Antonio's lead to seven points early in the third quarter before Houston used a 13-4 run to take a 51-49 lead with about seven minutes left in the quarter. Pat Beverley got that spurt going with a 3-pointer and Harden made the next six points in that span.
The Spurs had turnovers on four straight possessions near the end of Houston's run.
A jump shot by Boris Diaw got San Antonio to 59-58 with about 2 1/2 minutes left in the quarter. After that both teams struggled to score and missed their next seven shots combined.
It was Diaw who finally ended the drought when he made a layup with less than a minute remaining. Ty Lawson made Houston's first field goal in almost 4 minutes after that to leave the Rockets up 61-60 entering the fourth quarter.
San Antonio scored the last seven points of the second quarter to take a 43-38 lead at halftime.
Spurs: Aldridge added 18 points and rebounds. ... Duncan had 12 points and 11 rebounds. ... Leonard made just 8 of 19 shots, and Aldridge was 9 of 17.
Rockets: Howard had 11 points and 12 rebounds for his third double-double in the past five games. ... The Rockets have won 18 straight games when holding an opponent to less than 90 points. ... Houston's bench outscored San Antonio's 41-26.
The Rockets were impressed with the play of Terry on Friday night. The 38-year-old, who goes by the nickname Jet, scored nine of his 12 points in the fourth quarter.
"Sometimes he is the propeller," Howard joked. "Tonight he was the jet. He played a really good game on both ends of the floor."
Harden also mocked him a bit before raving about his play.
"That's Jet, he's been in the game for 40 years," Harden said. "He made big shots. He made a couple of big defensive stops. He brings that energy ... when he gets in, he takes advantage of his opportunities."
Duncan on San Antonio's struggles: "There were just too many mistakes down the stretch. A little bit of a sloppy game, we couldn't get our rhythm and credit them for that. Defensively they were solid."
Spurs: Host Denver on Saturday.
Rockets: Visit New Orleans on Saturday.
- Jason Phillips
- Derrick Collins
- Gary Zielinski