James Harden leads Rockets to decisive victory over Spurs
Harden knocks down step-back jumper
HOUSTON -- With 15 games remaining, the Houston Rockets' primary goal for the regular season is well within reach. The immediate reward might not be all that appealing, however.
The Western Conference's top seed is Houston's to lose at this point. The Rockets (53-14) bumped its lead over the Golden State Warriors to two games by cruising to a 109-93 win Monday night over the struggling, undermanned San Antonio Spurs. The Rockets also own the tiebreaker over the Warriors, so Houston essentially has a three-game cushion in the fight to secure home-court advantage for the West finals.
The best record in the NBA might earn the Rockets a first-round date with a significantly upgraded version of the Spurs, whose struggles without their superstar small forward Kawhi Leonard have put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. San Antonio could be a heck of an opening hurdle if Leonard can return to All-NBA form after a lengthy absence due to his mysterious quadriceps ailment and help transform the Spurs back to their two-decade norm of excellence.
"It doesn't matter where you are -- you're going to get a good team," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said before the blowout. "So, whatever."
It's understandable that a potential playoff series with Gregg Popovich's Spurs isn't a favorite subject of discussion for D'Antoni. Those coaches have met five times in the postseason, with D'Antoni's teams being eliminated each time, including the Spurs knocking out the Rockets in six games during last season's West semifinals despite Leonard's absence in the sixth and deciding game of the series.
The Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers and Rockets teams with D'Antoni on the sideline had a combined 6-20 record in playoff games against the Spurs. Then again, with all due respect to the Steve Nash-run Suns, none of those teams were nearly as dominant as these Rockets, who have won 19 of the past 20 games and are a ridiculous 35-2 when James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela all play.
And these Spurs -- even with LaMarcus Aldridge (sore knee) and Manu Ginobili (rest), who both sat out against the Rockets -- look nothing like the perennial contenders who have made the playoffs each of the previous 20 seasons, the third-longest postseason streak in NBA history. In fact, the Spurs find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff picture this late in the season for the first time since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Not that Pop plans to mention that to the Spurs, who could have Leonard back in the lineup as soon as Thursday.
"Not at any time in any year did we mention, 'This is where we are in the playoffs' or 'This is where we want to be,'" Popovich said pregame. "We just don't do that. ... You don't think they know where we're at? Do you think they're idiots? C'mon."
The Spurs find themselves in this foreign territory because they've been frankly terrible for the past six weeks. The Spurs are 3-11 since the start of February, giving them fewer wins than every NBA team except for the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Suns and Memphis Grizzlies.
It's a lot to ask Leonard, who has been limited to nine games this season due to right quadriceps tendinopathy and a recovery timetable that has frustrated the Spurs, to come to the rescue. But a former Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year with a pair of top-five MVP finishes is a pretty rare species. And certainly not one even the NBA's best team would want to see to start the playoffs.