TUESDAY, 2/22/05 – Oh what a heart breaker. With the Rockets doing so well over the past few games and with a good showing by Houston’s All-Stars over the weekend, it seemed anything was possible, including knocking off the current third-seeded Western Conference playoff team, the Seattle Sonics. A quick good start after the All-Star weekend would have been ideal. And for all but the last few seconds of the game it was within reach.
From the first quarter it was apparent that both teams came out to play. Bob Sura was out due to back pains, but his teammates picked up the slack. The Sonics got off to a fast start due to Ray Allen, who scored their first eight points. The Rockets offense, however, was even more fantastic. Yao led the charge with 4-5 shooting from the field and 4-5 from the line for 12 points in the first quarter. T-Mac and David Wesley balanced out the attack with 7 and 8 points respectively to end the quarter ahead 28-20.
But the Sonics showed their mettle and stayed close. The Rockets hard-earned 8-point lead was cut down quickly by the Sonics as Rashard Lewis, who ended up having a decent game (23 points), became involved in the offense. Yao continued his fantastic shooting, including three dunks in the second quarter to keep the Rockets ahead 51-44 at halftime.
Yao at this point was clearly feeling good, was the hot hand, and had gained the trust of his teammates. He was getting the entry pass when he called for it and was hitting great shots. On one play he had a nice over-the-head no-look one-handed flip pass to Ryan Bowen for a layup to get the assist. Sonics center Jerome James tried his best to embarrass and play Yao, but to no avail. All of James’ power moves in the paint ended up missing or getting blocked by Yao. On the opposite end of the court Yao had his way with James, hitting with his turnaround jumper at will.
And don’t believe all the bashing of Yao on his defense. If it wasn’t for Yao’s presence in the lane and countless intimidations of Luke Ridnour, the Sonics’ poor man version of Steve Nash, the Sonics would have scored many more points and had many less turnovers. Normally a great 3-point shooting team, the Sonics were ice cold shooting only 16% after three quarters. With Yao clogging the lane the Rockets maintained a nice 66-61 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
T-Mac began the fourth with a clean jump shot that signaled that the Rockets’ lead would not be so easily diminished. But the Sonics aren’t the number three team in the West for no reason. Off fast breaks and great passing, the Sonics erased their deficit in minutes. Allen, taking advantage of the height difference by shooting over David Wesley, hit easy jumpers. But after a fallaway jumper by Yao, then an emphatic dunk by Yao coupled with a penalty free throw, and a three-pointer from Jon Barry, the Rockets were up by 9 points with less than five minutes to go.
With the way the game was going it seemed all the Rockets had to do was maintain their momentum and the game was theirs. But that’s when the Allen and Lewis show kicked into gear, and less than a minute and a half later that 9-point lead had dwindled down to a 1-point lead. On a Lewis drive, Yao picked up his fifth foul. Minutes later T-Mac was faked by Lewis on the perimeter and picked up his fifth as well.
The Rockets called a timeout, and on the inbounds play, passed the ball to Barry, who then passed it perfectly to Yao, who dunked it for an 84-81 lead. But on the next play, Yao spun toward the baseline and drove to the basket, one of his signature moves, and was dubiously called for his 6th foul for stiff-arming his defender. TiVO review shows that the call was bogus, and no contact was made.
Yao’s exit meant that the burden was on T-Mac, and the Sonics’ defense adjusted accordingly. T-Mac went strong to the rim on the next play but was stripped and the turnover led to an Allen dunk. Down by one Dikembe Mutombo was fouled and made one free throw. On his second attempt he missed and a controversial loose ball foul was called on Wesley. Both Wesley and Allen dived for the ball, no one had control, but they called a foul on Wesley, putting Allen on the line for two free throws with 19 seconds remaining.
EDITORIAL NOTE FROM JOHN: This call on Wesley by the refs was absolutely ridiculous, and just capped an incompetent night of calls. This rivaled the call a week or so ago when the refs called a jump ball when only one player was holding on to the ball. The refs figure if bodies are falling to the floor, then something needs to be called. Wesley had just as good position as Ray Allen had in going after the ball as it was bouncing out of bounds. To put a guy on the line to win the game on such a call was a cop-out.
Speaking of bad calls, the call that fouled out Yao was absurd considering he never made contact with the defender when he made his patented spin move on the baseline.
And the incompetence was seen even earlier when Dikembe Mutombo clearly blocked a shot at the rim, but was called for a foul. And let’s not forget the absence of a traveling call on Nick Collison, who drove two steps into a Rocket defender, didn’t put up a shot, lost control of the ball, came down with it, took two more steps, and lost the ball out of the bounds. What did the refs call? Not only did they not call traveling, but they called the ball out of bounds off the Rockets, giving the Sonics possession! I could go on-and-on about the bad calls in this game, but you get the idea. Back to Chia-Chi’s coverage…
Allen made both free throws and the Rockets had a chance to tie it, but the inbound pass went to Mutombo, who had difficulty giving the ball to T-Mac due to Lewis’ defense. Scott Padgett got the ball wide open for the last shot but it didn’t even hit the rim. Allen evaded any last-second fouls to hand the Rockets a hard loss at home, 87-85.
How did Yao do?
Great. 30 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks on 11-16 shooting from the field, and 8-of-10 from the line. He is visibly more confident on the court, trying new moves and getting move involved, often leading to great plays but also often leading to fouls. I think it will take him some time to adjust defense, but I expect him only to improve.
How did the other Rockets do?
Without Bob Sura they were shorthanded, but still played an excellent game. Against one of the league’s foremost offensive teams they maintained the lead for more than 90% of the game. If it wasn’t for Yao fouling out on a bad call, there is a good chance they could have won this game.
A loss is never good, but losing by 2 points to the number three team in the conference because of some dubious calls is not a bad sign. Hopefully victory denied will keep the team hungry as they face the Spurs on Wednesday.
To read the Houston Chronicle’s post-game analysis, click here.