Harden returns to maintain Spurs sliding

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James Harden makes it look straightforward, coming off a display and dropping in a reasonably step-back jumper.

HOUSTON — With 15 video games remaining, the Houston Rockets‘ major purpose for the common season is properly inside attain. The speedy reward won’t be all that interesting, nevertheless.

The Western Conference’s prime seed is Houston’s to lose at this level. The Rockets (53-14) bumped its lead over the Golden State Warriors to 2 video games by cruising to a 109-93 win Monday evening over the struggling, undermanned San Antonio Spurs. The Rockets additionally personal the tiebreaker over the Warriors, so Houston primarily has a three-game cushion within the battle to safe home-court benefit for the West finals.

The finest file within the NBA would possibly earn the Rockets a first-round date with a considerably upgraded model of the Spurs, whose struggles with out their famous person small ahead Kawhi Leonard have put their playoff hopes in severe jeopardy. San Antonio may very well be a heck of a gap hurdle if Leonard can return to All-NBA kind after a prolonged absence attributable to his mysterious quadriceps ailment and assist rework the Spurs again to their two-decade norm of excellence.

“It does not matter the place you might be — you are going to get crew,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni stated earlier than the blowout. “So, no matter.”

It’s comprehensible potential playoff collection with Gregg Popovich’s Spurs is not a favourite topic of debate for D’Antoni. Those coaches have met 5 occasions within the postseason, with D’Antoni’s groups being eradicated every time, together with the Spurs knocking out the Rockets in six video games throughout final season’s West semifinals regardless of Leonard’s absence within the sixth and deciding sport of the collection.

The Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers and Rockets groups with D’Antoni on the sideline had a mixed 6-20 file in playoff video games in opposition to the Spurs. Then once more, with all due respect to the Steve Nash-run Suns, none of these groups have been almost as dominant as these Rockets, who’ve gained 19 of the previous 20 video 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 (relaxation), who each sat out in opposition to the Rockets — look nothing just like the perennial contenders who’ve made the playoffs every of the earlier 20 seasons, the third-longest postseason streak in NBA historical past. In truth, the Spurs discover themselves on the surface wanting in on the playoff image this late within the season for the primary time since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997, based on the Elias Sports Bureau.

At 37-30, the Spurs are even with the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets for eighth within the West standings however do not personal tiebreakers over both crew.

Not that Pop plans to say that to the Spurs, who might have Leonard again within the lineup as quickly as Thursday.

“Not at any time in any 12 months did we point out, ‘This is the place we’re within the playoffs’ or ‘This is the place we need to be,'” Popovich stated pregame. “We simply do not do this. … You do not assume they know the place we’re at? Do you assume they’re idiots? C’mon.”

The Spurs discover themselves on this international territory as a result of they have been frankly horrible for the previous six weeks. The Spurs are Three-11 for the reason that begin of February, giving them fewer wins than each NBA crew aside from the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Suns and Memphis Grizzlies.

It’s lots to ask Leonard, who has been restricted to 9 video games this season attributable to proper quadriceps tendinopathy and a restoration timetable that has annoyed the Spurs, to come back 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 reasonably uncommon species. And definitely not one even the NBA’s finest crew would need to see to start out the playoffs.

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