SAN ANTONIO — This is how you notice the generations changing around the Christmas tree.
One year your little brother’s feet can’t reach the pedals on his new bike and, in what seems like the next, he’s resting an elbow on top of your head as you stand side by side in the photo.
Growth and championships are often measured by inches. Nobody knows that better than the Spurs.
All those little things from the 28 seconds in Miami last June are looming larger each time they step onto the court against one of the contenders in the Western Conference this season.
The Rockets may or may not yet be a real contender, depending on the day of the week or their interest in being professionals who show up with the same level of commitment each game.
For a holiday night, at least, the most noticeable difference wasn’t those form-fitting jerseys with sleeves, but the way the Rockets strutted into the AT&T Center and did everything this side of ripping the drumstick off the turkey and clubbing the Spurs over the head with it.
It was the difference in 3-point shooting, in having a fourth-quarter closer in James Harden, a defender in Jeremy Lin who wrapped up Tony Parker in pretty paper with a bow, an inside tandem of Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones and in energy.
Enough energy to light up every tree in town.
The Rockets, when they have their heads on straight, are as powerful and devastatingly effective as a blizzard and they buried everything about three feet under with an opening quarter of howling wind.
Meanwhile, the Spurs are looking like one of the polar ice caps that is thawing and melting from climate change.
This is only the second time in Tim Duncan’s NBA career that began in 1997-98 that the Rockets have swept the Spurs on their home floor in the season series.
“We didn’t give very good performances,” said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. “You can live with that from time to time. Nobody’s going to play perfect every night. But you can’t combine poor performances with a lack of physicality and a lack of discipline. They whipped us. They whipped us good. That’s an embarrassing loss.”
That’s also becoming a habit.
Despite their gaudy overall record, the Spurs are now 0-7 on the season against the top six teams they’ve faced, giving up 115, 112, 111, 111, 115, 113 and 94 points.
In their four home losses this season — Rockets (2), Thunder and Pacers — they have trailed by double digits every time and were down by at least 18 in three of them. It was the 10th time in their last 14 games that the Spurs have given up at least 100.
For the second time this season the Rockets were the more aggressive, more assertive, more enthusiastic, just plain better team and one full of enough youth and vigor to never have to bother to look back over their shoulders.
Except those same shoulders are carrying around losses to the lowly likes of Philly, Utah and Sacramento.
A lack of maturity or understanding?
“A little bit of both,” said Harden, who poured in 16 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter. “We’ve had quite a bit of injuries coming in and out of the lineup. We’re a fairly new team. So the more we can get our reps in with everybody available the better off we’ll be.”
Or it could more likely be a matter of the Rockets simply not bringing the same level of concentration into every game.
“We understand how good of a team San Antonio is and we want to hit first every time we come here,” said Howard. “We like the rivalry that we’re trying to establish with these guys. We look up to this team. We want to be like them one day. This is a great team. We want to play great.
“We just gotta be more consistent. It’s something we’re all working on as a team … It’s very important. We can beat a San Antonio and lose a couple of games that we should win.”
For years the Spurs have kept holding open the window on a championship era that was said to be closing and last season perhaps convinced everyone that the Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili can grow older than Methuselah and never fade away. Then there is this.
For weeks now, the Rockets have shown fleeting glimpses of how often they can stomp down on the accelerator, how good they can be, how far they can go. Until the next night when they just don’t.
Sometimes a game is just a game and sometimes it’s a snapshot that shows generations changing.