Playing the Tracy McGrady-less Houston Rockets, Popovich said the Spurs entered the AT&T Center already with an advantage. If they had lost under those circumstances, "you feel doubly bad."
The Spurs beat the Rockets 90-84 Friday night, avenging an 89-81 loss earlier this month in Houston.
"This is one of those tough evenings, those are the games you don't want to lose," Popovich said. "The other team is fired up. If they get that win, it's kind of like a double win for them."
Tim Duncan had a season-high 25 points and grabbed 13 rebounds and Manu Ginobili added 19 points for the Spurs (8-2).
Luis Scola, whose rights were traded from the Spurs to the Rockets over the summer, had a breakout game, scoring 20 points.
"He's a hell of a player, but we already knew that. That's nothing new," Popovich said. "It kills me to have him on that team. Just enough to make you spit."
Scola said the July trade wasn't a sore spot for him.
"I just try to play hard every game and sometimes I play good, sometimes I play bad. Today I hit those shots," Scola said. "It has nothing to do with ... the Spurs."
The Rockets (6-4) managed to tie the game at 80 with 3:48 to play on Scola's jump shot. But even with Yao Ming's eight points in the quarter, the Spurs were able to pull away.
Ginobili made it 88-84 as he cradled the ball on his way to the basket for a layup with 57 seconds to go, and Duncan blocked Yao's layup attempt with 9 seconds to play. Tony Parker, who finished with 14 points, then sank a couple of free throws.
Yao had 14 points and nine rebounds for Houston. Shane Battier added 16 points and Mike James 10. Houston coach Rick Adelman said McGrady's status is day-to-day.
The Spurs opened the fourth quarter up 69-64 after what had been a back-and-forth game early on. They never trailed after going up 47-46 late in the second quarter.
"The result of the game, we cannot change," Yao said. "So we need to move forward and think of tomorrow."
Duncan, who struggled two games ago, scoring just five points against the Los Angeles Lakers, didn't score in the fourth quarter. But Ginobili and Parker, who went 1-of-11 in the Spurs' Thursday night loss to their other in-state rival, the Dallas Mavericks, came up with six points apiece in the final period.
"It looked pretty good at times. We shot a good percentage," Battier said. "I thought people were in rhythm. ... Throw (McGrady) in there and that's the next step for our team."
Duncan's right elbow was wrapped, but he clearly wasn't bothered much as he scored 20 points in the first half. He had 14 in the first quarter to give the Spurs a 25-24 advantage after one period.
"It's why he's the focal point of our team," said San Antonio's Bruce Bowen. "He's the foundation here. There's times when he'll get a silent 20 and create so many shots for other guys. That's the versatility he has."
Finley went 6-of-6 for 15 points at the half, when the Spurs held a 49-46 lead.
But even without McGrady, who has a sprained right elbow, the Rockets not only stayed close, but held the lead several times during the first half by as many as nine points. Finley's third 3-pointer of the game with 45 seconds left gave the Spurs a 47-46 lead. It was their first since Battier broke a 28-all tie four minutes into the second quarter.
Scola also was perfect in the half, making all six shots for 12 points. He had been averaging 3.9 points before Friday's game and finished 10-of-11 from the field.
The Spurs pulled away early in the third. But Houston battled back with two baskets from Scola and a 3-pointer from Rafer Alston to get within 61-60 with 3:47 to play.
Ginobili's two 3s within a span of 1:28 pushed the Spurs to a 69-60 lead, their biggest of the game. Battier made it 69-62 and a last-second goaltending call against Francisco Elson brought the Rockets within 69-64 and sent Popovich spinning around to lean on the scorer's table holding his head in his hands.
Spurs F Robert Horry still has not played this season. He has been excused due to personal business. ... Spurs G Jacque Vaughn was back for his second game after sitting out the first eight contests of the season with a strained right calf. ... Houston shot better than the Spurs, going 38-of-75 from the field (51 percent). The Spurs were 35-of-72 (49 percent). But the Spurs got 16 shots from the foul line, hitting 11, while the Rockets went to the stripe only six times, hitting four. Yao didn't get any free-throw attempts: "In 39 minutes I guess it never happened to him, he never got fouled in that game," Adelman said sarcastically. ... The Spurs hit nine 3-pointers. ... Last time the Spurs and Rockets played, Houston outrebounded San Antonio 55-28. The Spurs had a 40-31 advantage off the glass Friday.