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‘Perfect formula’: Rockets blast Spurs behind physical defense, Alperen Sengun’s brilliance

HOUSTON — Prior to Tuesday’s game versus San Antonio, Rockets center Alperen Sengun knew entering his matchup with rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama that he would have to play better than he did in Houston’s Dec. 13 victory over the Spurs.

That night, Sengun had a decent game with 15 points and nine rebounds, but Wembanyama’s length caused him problems all night. So, too, did double teams from other Spurs players on defense, which forced Sengun into a game-high six turnovers.

That was not the case on Tuesday night, as Sengun had a career-high 45 points, 16 rebounds, and a career-best five steals as the Rockets defeated the Spurs, 114-101, at the Toyota Center.

In 40 years, since the 1983-84 NBA season, it is just the sixth time a player has recorded at least 45 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 steals in a single game and the second time by a Rocket (James Harden had 61 points, 15 rebounds, and five steals at New York in January 2019).

“I didn’t play that good last game against him, I can say,” Sengun said in postgame comments. “And I didn’t see that much double-teams. They just leave me one-on-one with Wemby. I just did what I do.”

“He’s so tall, but he’s not that strong, yet. So, I was going at his chest and putting him under the rim.”

The third-year center from Turkey imposed his physical presence on Wembanyama the entire game by continuously finishing at the rim with force. In turn, that largely negated the rookie’s height advantage. Sengun was consistently fed in the post by guards Fred VanVleet, who finished the game with 10 assists, and Jalen Green.

“He was a beast,” Green said to reporters in a tone loud enough for Sengun to hear him across the locker room. “He played amazing. That’s the Alpi I know, so it doesn’t surprise me.”

With Rockets forward Dillon Brooks constantly harassing him, Wenbamyama finished with only 10 points after averaging 25 over his last five games, including 31 points in his previous game versus Indiana. He was outscored by Sengun, 30-0, in the second half.

“When Alpi gets going like that, I just keep feeding him,” VanVleet told RocketsWire after the game. “There was no one doubling him, so we just let him work in the paint.”

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, known to coach his players with tough love, allowed his rookie center to take on Sengun one-on-one — even though he knew that Houston’s young center was effectively bullying Wembanyama the entire game.

“They were physical from the get-go until the end of the game,” Popovich said in his postgame press conference. “They came after it that way, and they played that way. They put us in the mud, and we didn’t respond very well, and you got the outcome.”

Popovich’s squad had entered with two straight wins, and both had come by double digits versus a pair of winning teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana). But winning in Houston proved more difficult.

Rockets head coach Ime Udoka, who played and coached for Popovich, wanted to see his team’s competitiveness and toughness carry over from two previous games in Phoenix, where his young players didn’t allow themselves to be bullied by a veteran-led Suns team. Houston set that tone Tuesday by taking the fight to the Spurs.

“Alpi and a bunch of others guarded exceptionally well in the second half, specifically Dillon on Wembanyama, to hold him scoreless in the second half,” Udoka said. “You don’t always get a lot of credit when you’re not scoring, but what he (Brooks) did for the game, the way he impacted it, I think it was great.”

“Fifteen steals and only 15 fouls, so we were playing physical, aggressive defense without fouling,” Udoka said. Those (19) turnovers for them turned into fast break points for us. So, a perfect formula.”

With the win, the Rockets (27-35) have now won consecutive games for the first time in more than two months (Jan. 1, Jan. 3).

Houston will have limited time to celebrate its victory over the Spurs, as they welcome the Los Angeles Clippers to Toyota Center in ESPN’s nationally televised game on Wednesday night.

Story originally appeared on Rockets Wire