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Rockets slip past Spurs, clinch No. 4 seed

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HOUSTON — Season-series sweeps don’t amount to much when the postseason arrives.

Even so, the Houston Rockets won’t dismiss their four-game run of victories over the San Antonio Spurs, especially taking into consideration the historical context of their feat.

The Rockets used a late rally to overcome a five-point, fourth-quarter deficit, and Houston earned a 104-98 win over the Spurs on Monday night at Toyota Center.

The Rockets (54-27) secured the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage for their Western Conference quarterfinal series against the Portland Trail Blazers by completing their first season sweep against the Spurs (62-19) since 1988-89.

Houston surged into the lead with a 16-5 run after San Antonio wrestled control with a spirited performance from its bench.

“We fought hard for it,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “It took a little longer than I hoped, but we knew we had to get 54 wins, and we got there with one (game) to spare. I’m glad we didn’t have to wait until Wednesday (in New Orleans against the Pelicans) to try and get it.”

Houston center Dwight Howard recorded his 10th consecutive double-double against the Spurs, posting 20 points and 17 rebounds. Forward Chandler Parsons added 21 points and seven rebounds. Guard James Harden (16 points, seven assists) sealed the win with a step-back 21-footer with 50.5 seconds left that lifted Houston to a 100-94 lead.

Guard Marco Belinelli led the Spurs with 17 points. Center Jeff Ayres and forward Tim Duncan (12 points each), forwards Boris Diaw and Austin Daye (11 points each) and guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker (10 points) also reached double figures for San Antonio, which got 47 points from its bench.

“We got out of the game exactly what we wanted,” Duncan said. “A good workout, a good game, good game situations, and we had a lot of guys get a lot of minutes. It was a perfect situation for us.”

In just his second game back after missing eight games with a left ankle strain, Howard provided the Rockets an early boost in the paint, scoring six points and grabbing seven boards in the first quarter.

Howard and forward Terrence Jones (20 points, 11 boards) proved a dominating interior tandem, combining for 15 points and 10 rebounds as the Rockets carried a 30-23 lead into the second quarter. That was just the start for Howard, who converted all six of his shot attempts prior to halftime with an array of post moves, entering the break with a double-double (12 points, 11 boards) and the Rockets leading 50-43.

Houston kept the Spurs at arm’s length, keyed by Parsons’ 14 third-quarter points. When Parsons followed a 3-pointer from guard Jeremy Lin with a bank shot at the 1:45 mark, the Rockets led 76-62. The Spurs, with home-court advantage throughout the postseason already in hand, appeared to concede by benching perennial All-Stars Duncan and Parker with four-plus minutes remaining in the period.

One 25-6 run later, and the Spurs worked their way into the lead with their reserves. When center Aron Baynes converted a reverse layup with 6:06 left, the Spurs led 87-82.

“I thought they were great,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of his reserves. “It was a good night: we got the minutes we wanted to get for certain guys and got a lot of guys some extra minutes. Nobody got hurt, so it was a good night.”

Said Harden: “No matter who they have on the court, they play the same way. They are a tough team. We knew it was going to be a battle from the beginning.”

NOTES: One takeaway from Rockets coach Kevin McHale playing Houston G Troy Daniels, a D-League call-up earlier that afternoon, down the stretch last Saturday night was that veteran F Omri Casspi and F Jordan Hamilton watched the comeback from the bench. While hindered by injuries, inconsistent bench play remains an issue. “If everybody gets healthy we’re not looking (for options) quite as much either,” McHale said. “But yeah, it’s always a little disconcerting with two games to go and you’re (searching for consistency).” … The Spurs rested G Patty Mills, G/F Danny Green, F Kawhi Leonard and C Tiago Splitter on Monday night. … The flux at the bottom of the Western Conference postseason picture has Spurs coach Gregg Popovich seeking resolution so that his team can begin preparations in advance of the first round. “It would be good to know who we’re going to play, because right now we’re concentrating on three different teams,” Popovich said. “That’s a little bit frustrating maybe.”