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Rockets dominate depleted Spurs

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HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets were in no position to assume anything would be easy, to take victory for granted even with the San Antonio Spurs resting two-thirds of their big three on the second night of back-to-back games.

Behind a dominating performance from center Dwight Howard, the Rockets jumped on the short-handed Spurs early and never relented, rolling to a resounding 98-81 win on Thursday night at Toyota Center.

Howard paired 32 points with 16 rebounds and ran roughshod over a San Antonio frontcourt lacking center-forward Tim Duncan (rest) and center Tiago Splitter (calf).

The big man combination of Aron Baynes and Jeff Ayres proved no match for Howard, who set out to control the interior action regardless of what personnel decisions the Spurs made.

“It really didn’t matter who they had on the floor,” said Howard, who finished 12 of 18 from the field. “It was my job to go out and set the tone on both ends of the floor, especially on the defensive end.

“When you have five championships, you can sit a couple games. Until we get there, we’re going to come out every night and play as hard as we can. Despite not having Tim and Manu (Ginobili), those guys were going to come out and play hard. We didn’t expect nothing but some hard-working guys on the floor.”

Down five regulars, San Antonio (2-2) shot its way into an early deficit by missing its first 11 from the field. By intermission, the Spurs were 0 of 12 on 3-pointers and 11 of 44 overall, with backup point guard Cory Joseph (5 of 6) accounting for nearly half of the made field goals.

Joseph finished with a team-high 18 points. Baynes (12 points, 12 rebounds) and guard Danny Green (10 points) paced the San Antonio starters. Collectively, the Spurs’ starting lineup shot a woeful 14 of 46 from the field.

“I think you learn about players,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of relying on his bench to overcome the attrition. “You learn about the other team and what they like to do and what we need to do to play them.

“We are a sum-of-the-parts team. We have to have all of our parts to be at our best. We can’t rely on one player. We have to do it as a group. If we have injuries, we need our full bench to continue to play our best.”

Despite the sluggish start, the Spurs trailed just 18-15 heading into the second quarter. But then the Rockets (6-0) seized control midway through the quarter, holding the Spurs scoreless for five-plus minutes after rookie forward Kyle Anderson converted a three-point play that pulled San Antonio to 32-24 with 7:37 left before halftime.

Houston responded with a 13-5 run to close the half. Howard nailed two free throws and slammed home two alley-oop dunks around a driving layup from guard James Harden.

That burst continued into the third quarter with Howard following another alley-oop dunk with a three-point play before forward Trevor Ariza and guard Isaiah Canaan added 3-pointers to extend the lead to 56-36 with 8:00 left in the quarter.

Harden totaled 20 points, six rebounds and six assists. He did commit eight turnovers, but his defense — he had three blocks — sparked the Rockets, who scrambled all over the court to contest perimeter jumpers.

“We’ve been doing that all preseason and all of the first five or six games of the regular season thus far,” Harden said. “That’s our mindset.”

When Harden converted a driving layup with 1:58 remaining in the third quarter, the Rockets held their largest lead of the night at 80-49.

“It was a bad night and I couldn’t hit a shot,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “Defensively, we did OK, but we never going into an offensive rhythm.”

NOTES: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat F/C Tim Duncan and G Manu Ginobili as healthy scratches. The Spurs also were without C Tiago Splitter (right calf), G Marco Belinelli (right groin) and G Patty Mills (right shoulder). … Splitter is tentatively scheduled to see a physician after reaggravating his calf while making his season debut Wednesday night against the Atlanta Hawks. Belinelli will be out 7-10 days. … The Rockets were without G Patrick Beverley (hamstring) and F Terrence Jones (leg contusion). Beverley started and played 30 minutes Tuesday night in Miami after missing the previous two games. … Rockets rookie F Kostas Papanikolaou is a candidate to play more minutes alongside Rockets C Dwight Howard after posting a career-high five assists Tuesday night against the Miami Heat, including four to Howard.

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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