The Rockets didn’t just have a playoff problem against the San Antonio Spurs last year. They had a regular-season problem, in that the team simply wasn’t as good over 82 games.
That’s what makes Houston’s 23-4 start to the 2017-18 season — including the 124-109 beatdown of the rival Spurs (19-10) on Friday night at Toyota Center — so important.
Skeptics have pointed out that it’s only the regular season — but to me, that’s the point. The Rockets were 55-27 last year, six games worse than the Spurs over the 82-game season. That’s precisely why the Spurs were the No. 2 seed with home-court advantage in the playoff series.
The Rockets also lost three of four head-to-head meetings in the regular season, with the only win coming in early November. Counting the playoffs, the Rockets lost seven of 10 games to San Antonio, with only two wins in the final nine games between the teams.
Sure, the end of Game 5 and all of Game 6 of the second-round series weren’t pretty. But they weren’t the real story when it came to comparing the two teams. What happened is that the Spurs were simply a better basketball team by every conceivable measuring stick. It’s boring and not as sexy as the “Rockets choked!” storylines, but it’s the truth.
And that’s exactly why Friday night’s game was so meaningful. Not only did the Rockets outclass the Kawhi Leonard-led Spurs over 48 minutes, but Chris Paul — the player they brought in specifically to address many of those past shortcomings — was the best player on the floor for either side with 28 points (10-of-18 FG), 8 assists, and 7 steals in his 32 minutes.
Play-by-play announcer Craig Ackerman summed up well how Paul’s presence changed the Xs and Os dynamic between the two teams:
In essence, the matchup swung largely due to a player who wasn’t with the Rockets in their 2016-17 struggles vs. San Antonio. Besides the gaudy statistics, Paul’s renowned “killer instinct” was also on full display when he went into the tunnel at halftime agitated from a few late defensive lapses when he wasn’t on the floor — even with the Rockets up by 17! As a result, even though it’s one regular-season game, there’s significantly more predictive value to be taken from what happened Friday night than there is from last postseason, when Paul, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute weren’t there.
In December 2016, the Rockets had a 10-game winning streak snapped at home vs. the Spurs when they blew a 13-point lead in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. The loss put the Rockets three games behind San Antonio in the loss column, and it was a harbinger of things to come — both in terms of win-loss record and in head-to-head settings.
In December 2017, the Rockets entered their home matchup with the Spurs on an 11-game winning streak… and they pushed the streak to 12 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the 124-109 final might indicate. With the win, the Rockets currently hold a six-game lead (with the tiebreaker, too) on the Spurs in the all-important loss column.
Just as the December 2016 result was predictive of what was to come over the balance of the regular season and playoffs between these two teams, my bet is that the December 2017 result from Friday night is as well.
For more analysis on Friday’s game, here’s my official Locked on Rockets podcast recap: