One of the most promising games on the NBA's Christmas Day schedule ended in a statement, with the Rockets posting a 111-98 victory over the reigning Western Conference champion Spurs. It was all San Antonio could do to cut the deficit to single-digits; Houston soared to an early lead behind hot shooting from Chandler Parsons (21 points, six rebounds, six assists, 5-9 3FG), carried on throughout the game by running the floor, and finished off their foes by letting James Harden (28 points, six rebounds, six assists, 11-16 FG) go to work in the final minutes.
• Games like this inspire faith in Houston's defense. Much attention will -- and should -- be paid to the Rockets' burst scoring in the first and fourth quarters, but this was a two-way victory enabled by staunch defense. Such efforts began with a direct address of Tony Parker (six points, four assists, 3-11 FG), who had his worst game of the season against a Rockets defense trained to his position at all times. That Houston's top perimeter defender (Patrick Beverley) missed the game due to injury was almost irrelevant; Jeremy Lin did a terrific job of bothering Parker in Beverley's stead, while the Rocket bigs stepped up and over to crowd potential driving lanes and contest Parker's attempts.
That combination allowed Houston's starting lineup to play wildly successful defense in 27 minutes of action, effectively setting the tone for the evening from opening tip. It took Gregg Popovich all of one minute and 18 seconds to call his first timeout, and just two minutes to make his first substitution. His and the Spurs' frustration was palpable, and unfortunately didn't end there. Nothing went quite as it should for a team as steady as San Antonio. The rotations of a typically elite defense were a bit out of sync, to the point that simple drive-and-kick sequences netted open threes for the Rockets. Parker wasn't able to find room to work through Houston's defense, leaving the Spurs in a tough spot. Even when San Antonio was able to create offensive leverage and make an effort to move the ball, they committed odd, unforced turnovers and whiffed on their share of makeable shots. In total, that combination yielded a double-digit deficit in a matter of minutes, which the Spurs would trim but never fully erase.
That early lead was somewhat understandable, as no team this season has been as dominant in the first quarter as the Rockets. On average, Houston outscores its opponent by nearly 15 points per 100 possessions in the first -- a mark made all the more impressive by their early struggles in initially trying to balance Dwight Howard and Omer Asik as starting bigs. Things only opened up for the Rockets once Asik was swapped out of the starting five for Terrence Jones (21 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks), and since that point Houston's opening lineup has ranked among the league's very best five-man units. They lived up to that billing on Wednesday, not only in that opening stretch but in their consistent and committed defense throughout. While Houston's starters were on the floor, they held one of the best offenses in the league to 31 percent shooting from the field without committing many fouls at all. If they can maintain that kind of defensive efficacy against other top teams, the Rockets' ceiling this season could open up to accommodate loftier possibilities.
• San Antonio's depth complements but can't always compensate. The Spurs more or less stand alone in terms of their roster's functional depth. Popovich's rotation runs 10-deep, or even 11-deep in select situations. The players on the back end of that rotation generally bring shooting, playmaking, and defense in just the right doses, though on Wednesday we were reminded that even that impressive depth can only take San Antonio so far. With Parker and Duncan gasping for offense, Manu Ginobili (22 points, three rebounds, 8-17 FG) went to work as much as the Rockets defense would allow. He was terrific -- as has been the case so often this season -- but it wasn't nearly enough. There was balance in the scoring column for San Antonio (eight Spurs scored six points or more), but that diversification came more from desperation than natural process.
When that's the case -- when Parker is locked down and when Duncan is ineffective -- the Spurs will struggle, just as they famously did in the 2012 playoffs. Their deep ranks of contributing players makes for a unique asset, but their bench is built to complement what the stars do well more than make up for their potential struggles. That isn't to say that San Antonio can't win when Parker and Duncan aren't at their best, as the Spurs' defense is typically stingy enough to enable wins of all kinds. But it will be incredibly challenging (if not impossible) to get the better of quality opponents when both of those central stars play this poorly, no matter how admirably Ginobili fills in the gaps.
• Dwight Howard's post game, while solid, remains best used in moderation. It's a popular talking point that fills halftime studio breaks and drive-time radio segments, but Howard's back-to-the-basket work is generally misrepresented and largely underrated. At worst, Howard is competent down in the low post -- not as dominant as one would expect given his physical advantages, but a genuine asset to the offense. The problem is that he's far more effective when put on the move, as exceedingly few bigs have the speed and size to keep up with Howard in pick-and-roll situations.
Still, Howard is solid enough down low to deserve investment with touches and scoring opportunities, as the Rockets clearly realize. Houston goes through stretches where feeding Dwight is an obvious priority; there are a handful of sets in Kevin McHale's playbook geared toward posting up Howard in a variety of ways, and for minutes at a time the Rockets will run through those sequences as a means of establishing that particular half-court option. The results are often mixed, as they were on this particular occasion. Howard faced a tough task in trying to work over Duncan and Tiago Splitter from the block on Wednesday, both of whom rank among the 10 or so best low-post defenders in the league. Howard nonetheless managed to score eight points on nine used post-up possessions for the evening, making for a solid enough conversion rate under the circumstances.
Where Howard runs into problems, though, is in the predictability of his low-post arsenal. This is one of the rare areas in which criticism of Howard rings true; it's not hard to predict where and when Howard wants to go once he begins the process of backing down his opponent, and Splitter took particular advantage of that fact by timing his swipes at Howard's dribble and cutting off the right angles along the way. As a result, three of Howard's non-scoring post-up chances were turnovers -- created because Howard adjusted his feet after his initial move to score was denied. It was hardly the smoothest work, and part of the reason why many consider Howard's post game to be an easy target.