Saturday, November 15, 2008

Express News: Late surge propels Spurs past Rockets

By Mike Monroe - Express-News

Spurs rookie George Hill just enjoyed the game of his fledgling NBA life.

He had 17 points, six rebounds and five assists in a 77-75 comeback victory over the Houston Rockets, who came into the AT&T Center on Friday night with the best record in the Southwest Division.

Then Hill, suddenly a starter by default, got to his locker after a long shower and discovered his first NBA paycheck.

Peeking inside the envelope, he let out a low whistle.

“We get one of these every two weeks, Roger?” he asked teammate Roger Mason Jr.

“Yes, George,” Mason said, “and you earned that check tonight.”

Payday rarely has felt better for the Spurs (3-5), who finished the game with 12 unanswered points. The Rockets (5-4) didn’t score in the final 4:43.

Without a basket through the first 4:40 of the fourth quarter, they had trailed the Rockets by 14 with 7:37 remaining. But defensive effort reminiscent of their championship runs kept them from falling farther behind. Then, timely 3-point shooting got them to a crunch time situation in which they out-executed the Rockets at both ends of the floor.

Tim Duncan’s driving hook shot with 59.7 seconds remaining gave the Spurs their first lead of the second half, 76-75, and they followed with three defensive stops to ice the game.

Houston’s Ron Artest launched a 3-point attempt just before the final buzzer, and when it skidded off the back rim, the Spurs raced off the court in celebration mode endorsed by their head coach.

“I was really impressed with the 48-minute effort the guys made,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “especially being down 14 and not really caring who’s playing the game, and trying to give their best. So they deserve to enjoy themselves tonight.”

The Spurs came into the game averaging only 94.3 points per game, and Popovich had no  idea where he might find additional offense.

Hill was the unlikely source of enough offense to augment Duncan’s steady production.

Learning on the fly, the rookie on three occasions took the ball straight at 7-foot-6 Rockets center Yao Ming, scoring over a defensive presence he said he dared not fear.

“You can’t be scared of nobody,” Hill said. “He’s a great player, but you have to play. That’s the only way I can make something happen, because he’s going to be there all night.”

Popovich noticed.

“What’s impressive about George is he’s starting to figure out how to be aggressive on a consistent basis and he’s learning a new position,” Popovich said. “For a rookie to be doing that under these circumstances is pretty impressive. He’s got a great demeanor about him and a fine mental toughness.”

The Spurs got another offensive jolt from unexpected territory. Forward Matt Bonner, who had not played a minute in the previous two games, got an early call from Popovich on Friday. He responded with 11 points in 19 minutes, 37 seconds, making three of four 3-point shots.

Mason’s defensive work on Houston’s Tracy McGrady in the final four minutes limited the Rockets’ top scorer to two shots, both of them well contested.

“No one person is going to stop a guy like T-Mac.” Mason said. “We all dug in, had great help-side defense and as a team we defended him.”

It was Duncan who had the biggest defensive play of the game, though. With 1.9 seconds remaining, his block of Aaron Brooks’ short runner on the left baseline preserved the Spurs’ lead. Mason tracked down the loose ball before it went out of bounds, forcing Brooks to foul him.

“This win is huge,” Mason said. “We felt like we gave one away in Milwaukee. Today we dug in. We missed some shots, but this team is not all about offense. It’s about our defense, getting stops and big blocked shots like Tim did, and getting loose balls and rebounds.

“Today, we scrapped for this win.”

And earned their paychecks.

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