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NBA Christmas Day: Harden, Rockets return to old form, stifle Spurs

James Harden and the Houston Rockets had perhaps the most surprising performance on NBA Christmas Day ... they beat the title-contending San Antonio Spurs.

One of the West’s two true juggernauts slipped up on Christmas, dropping a closely contested game to a Rockets team in the midst of a course correction. Houston’s defense led the way but it was James Harden (20 points) who powered through a slow start to hit a pair of crucial, contested three-pointers late. The Rockets went on to win, 88–84, in a game Friday in which neither team found much rhythm in its half-court offense.

This proved to be an important win for the Rockets, who showed their ability to match up and edge out one of the best teams in the league. San Antonio has been blowing out opponents for weeks, building up an impressive point differential behind a top-three offense and outstanding, league-leading defense. Houston took the challenge head on by locking up San Antonio from the start. The Spurs had some successful scoring runs, but overall their offense was run aground by an active, invigorated defense.

The Rockets played like themselves again.

Long, athletic defenders tracked the ball at every turn, staying on top of the play just enough to deny San Antonio its extra-pass momentum. When the Spurs’ offense bogged down and defaulted into the post, Dwight Howard, Clint Capela, and Terrence Jones battled for position and kept their feet. Trevor Ariza even managed to take the bite out of Kawhi Leonard’s iso sequences, leaving the Spurs searching for something—anything—that could put points on the board consistently.

• SI’s NBA Christmas Day Roundup: Analysis, best highlights and more

Those frustrations, coupled with some uncharacteristically poor decision-making from Tim Duncan and others down the stretch, allowed the Rockets to command a game despite never really clicking offensively. History says that the Spurs, long masters of extracting efficiency from a dogfight, win most games of that type. Friday’s game came to a different result by way of Houston’s committed efforts.

Naughty: Tony Parker, Spurs. San Antonio doesn’t lean on Parker for offense the way it did even a few seasons ago, but it still needs more of him than he was able to provide in the Christmas showcase. Parker’s two points on the night were his lowest in any game this season. His 14.3% field goal percentage (1-of-7 shooting) was his worst of the year. His three turnovers in the game weren’t exactly crippling, though those lost possessions only added to Parker’s dead weight. It was a rough outing for the Spurs’ mainstay, who isn’t much more than a bit player in San Antonio’s vaunted defense and on this occasion couldn’t find much room to contribute offensively.

GOLLIVER: Draymond Green saves Christmas for Warriors vs. Cavs

Nice: Dwight Howard, Rockets. Howard was the fourth-leading scorer on his own team on Friday and the seventh-leading scorer overall. Yet in a game in which no single player really thrived on offense, Howard’s work in coverage stood out. Pick-and-rolls were contained and sets upended because Howard loomed large on so many possessions. Ariza, Patrick Beverley, and Corey Brewer were able to apply pressure on the perimeter because of Howard’s lurking presence. Calling him a safety net isn’t quite accurate. Howard is a much more active participant in Houston’s best defensive sequences than most realize, even when he isn’t directly correcting a teammate’s mistake or snuffing out an opponent’s shot.

Style watch: The standard uniform sets of the Rockets and the Spurs fall within the deep ranks of the adequate; neither is much of an eyesore, and neither is exactly a vision of design. With the NBA-wide Christmas Day script changes, however, both come alive. The typical accents on both uniforms—a plain black stripe down the side of San Antonio’s jerseys, swooping white arcs on the side of Houston’s—work nicely alongside a subtle cursive. Kudos to those who designed a scheme that could work for 10 teams across five games, all while maintaining (and improving upon) the basic design elements that differentiated those teams in the first place.

• PRINCE: Jimmy Butler, Bulls snag much-needed win over Thunder

Biggest takeaway: Houston can still really defend ... when it wants to. The Rockets, confounding as they are, just locked up an elite team a month after costing their coach his job with their apathetic defense. Trust in its night-to-night performance at your own risk, but Houston still has the components to be a dangerous team whenever it commits to guarding with energy.