HOUSTON -- Consecutive games of being pounded and pushed and essentially bullied by the Memphis Grizzlies put the Houston Rockets in position to respond in one of two ways when the San Antonio Spurs started utilizing similar tactics in the early stages Tuesday night.
The Rockets could either fight or fold. They chose the former option.
Rockets center Dwight Howard snagged a pair of critical offensive rebounds late in the fourth quarter to help Houston complete a 97-90 comeback victory at Toyota Center.
Howard corralled guard Aaron Brooks' errant 3-pointer and added a putback dunk to double the Rockets' lead to 92-88 with 1:28 remaining. And, after missing a pair of free throws at the 1:07 mark, Howard tipped the offensive rebound out to guard Patrick Beverly, who initiated a reset that yielded a bank shot by guard Jeremy Lin with 48.9 seconds left.
Those tough, physical plays were emblematic of the Rockets' effort in the face of a bruising defensive performance by the shorthanded Spurs.
"The last two games, I wouldn't say we quit, but when teams hit us we didn't hit back like we needed to," Howard said. "I was telling the guys we've got to fight no matter what. We've got to push, hit, do whatever we've got to do, and once we start doing that on a daily basis referees will start taking account of it knowing that this is how we're going to play."
Howard finished with 23 points and 16 rebounds, overcoming a frustrating offensive effort that included missing 10 of 15 shots. Lin, substituting for the injured James Harden, paired 18 points with eight assists while forward Terrence Jones added 21 points and nine boards.
The Spurs (33-12) led 46-39 at halftime but saw that lead evaporate quickly as the Rockets (30-17) outscored San Antonio 33-18 in the third quarter. Houston improved to 3-0 against San Antonio this season and snapped the Spurs' streak of 15 consecutive 100-point games.
"The start of the third quarter hurt us," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "We came out and gave up a three right off the bat and then made a mental error defensively. They made a steal and it got them going."
Forward Boris Diaw paced the Spurs with a season-high 22 points and 11 rebounds. Center Tim Duncan added 12 points and 14 rebounds, but he totaled just two points and three rebounds after halftime.
The Spurs blitzed the Rockets from the opening tip, converting their opening five shot attempts while extending to a 13-4 lead. Duncan added a pair of layups on consecutive possessions midway through the period to build the cushion to 17-6 and inspire Rockets coach Kevin McHale to quickly call his second timeout of the quarter.
It wasn't until Duncan gave the Spurs a 21-6 lead with a baseline slam dunk that Houston stirred from its stupor. Forward Donatas Motiejunas drilled a 3-pointer before Jones carried the Rockets the rest of the period, closing with 10 points as the other starters struggled.
Houston managed to make it to halftime trailing by only seven points, even though Howard started 0-for-8 from the floor and forward Chandler Parsons closed the half scoreless on 0-for-6 shooting. Jones and Lin essentially carried the offensive load while the Spurs cooled by missing open perimeter looks and shooting 8-for-22 in the second.
"We were switching too much (defensively)," McHale said. "We kept chasing them and chasing them and chasing them too much. They were getting in our paint. We changed a couple of things defensively and the guys dug in and got stops."
Not only did the Spurs miss 17 of 23 treys, they were whipped on the boards, surrendering a minus-16 margin that kept Houston in control.
"That hurt us bad obviously," Duncan said. "They got some big ones down the stretch."
NOTES: Spurs G Manu Ginobili left the game with tightness in his left hamstring and was to be evaluated later. He will not play Wednesday night against the Chicago Bulls. ... Rockets G James Harden missed his seventh game this season, sidelined this time with a bruised left thumb suffered Saturday night against the Memphis Grizzlies. Harden has performed exceptionally against the Spurs since joining Houston prior to last season. He has averaged 30 points on 60.7 percent shooting, plus six rebounds and six assists, over five games. ... The Spurs were without G/F Danny Green (fractured left hand), F Kawhi Leonard (fractured right hand) and C Tiago Splitter (sprained right shoulder). ... The next win for the Spurs' Big Three of Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker will be their 485th, matching the Los Angeles Lakers' trio of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper and Magic Johnson for second all-time. The Boston Celtics' trio of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish won 540 games.