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Mike Monroe
Express-News Staff Writer The Spurs had just seen the Houston Rockets trim a 13-point lead to seven entering the fourth quarter of Saturday's game at the Toyota Center. Back-to-back game fatigue was threatening to do in the Southwest Division leaders yet again.

But springtime was little more than a day away, and for the Spurs, that means only one thing: wakeup time for Robert Horry.

After the Spurs' first possession of the fourth quarter resulted in a miss, Horry stole the ball from Houston's Dikembe Mutombo. Horry, a 14-year veteran, didn't wait for his teammates to get back to the offensive end. He dribbled to the left corner, behind the 3-point line, and launched a shot over the startled Mutombo.

"That's the only way I can get my shots off easy," Horry said, "by doing stuff like that."

And just like that, the Spurs had another double-digit lead, along with clear evidence the playoffs are only a month away, and that "Big Shot Rob" is getting primed.

"He's warming up," Tim Duncan said of Horry, one of the heroes of the Spurs' 2005 championship run. "He's like a diesel engine, and he's on the first step of warming it up."

Horry admits as much. Made aware that recent struggles by the Detroit Pistons had put the league's overall best record within reach, Horry made a mental note.

"I think it's time for me to remind some of these young guys that the league pays a bonus for best record," said Horry, 35. "Money's still a nice motivation, you know."

Horry's 12-point game Saturday was his first double-digit scoring performance since returning March2 after missing six games with a lower abdominal strain. He had totaled only 12 points in the previous five games, making only two 3-point shots. He made 2 of 5 long-distance attempts against the Rockets, including the shot over Mutombo.

"He's getting there," Duncan said. "You see him playing a little more focused and getting a little more ticked at himself when he makes mistakes and misses shots. You can see he's really starting to gear it up."

While Horry had hip realignment therapy over the final week of February to help correct his abdominal strain, the Spurs pondered signing Tim Thomas, another big man with 3-point range. Thomas, cut loose by the Chicago Bulls, opted to sign with the Phoenix Suns because Kurt Thomas' injury opened an immediate opportunity.

The Spurs were left to wait on Horry to prove his injury would improve to the point he could be himself down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Horry's play Saturday went a long way toward convincing them.

Even Spurs coach Gregg Popovich saw the playoff glint in Horry's eyes.

"Yeah," Popovich said, "Robert looked fairly interested tonight. His body listened to him, and he moved around well. That was impressive. He knows it's beginning, and he's got to get his rhythm and get his body ready. That's important for us."

And so it starts!
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