TUESDAY, 3/15/05 – The Golden State Warriors personified a hungry team and provided some unexpected turbulence for a Rockets team that continues to soar. While the Rockets now extend their winning streak to five games, beating the best of the West on their way (Suns, Sonics, Kings), the road weary Rockets team faced a final road trip game that was far from easy.
The first quarter transpired as you would expect: the Rockets dominating with great ball movement to open up shooters and a tight defense. The Rockets machine was humming along and the Warriors were taken for a ride and still struggling to buckle up. While Yao missed all three of his shots in the first quarter, he was a huge defensive presence, picking up 5 rebounds in the quarter.
If you’ve watched the Rockets lately you know how well they are passing the ball and how strong their perimeter shooting is. David Wesley continued to shine and hit 4-5 from the field, including two three-pointers. Juwan Howard also stepped up in a big way and added 8 points and 6 rebounds. Bob Sura, still recovering from his back injury, also dished out 6 assists in the first alone. The Rockets defense was in full control, contesting every Warrior shot. Needless to say, the Rockets were on cruise control and manhandling the Warriors, ending the quarter with a 25-12 lead.
Yao, who was taken out of the game at the 4 minute mark of the first quarter, returned and scored his first points on a three-point play in the second. Minutes later he left a defender open which led to easy Warrior points. As if to make up for his misstep, he demanded the ball on the following play and executed his patented spin to the baseline for a huge jam. Even the hardcore Warriors fans cheered on that play.
But the Warriors weren’t that simple of a team and valiantly fought back. A bench player named Zarko Cabarkapa, a lanky 6’11 player from the Serbia-Montenegro team, stepped up for the Warriors.
Being much faster than both Dikembe Mutombo and Yao, he continually drove into the lane Steve Nash style and distorted the Rockets defense. He also dared the larger and slower Rocket centers to meet him on the perimeter, where he either rained down threes, or drove past for easy buckets and rebounds, or passed to his teammates. Behind the play of Zarko, the Warriors pulled to within 7 points, 42-35.
The third quarter was better for the Rockets as T-Mac began strong with nice penetration. Howard continued his amazing play with great footwork in the paint for 8 points. But Zarko continued frustrating the Rockets’ defense. Yao and Mutumbo simply could not defend him, and one wonders why Jeff Van Gundy didn’t switch the defender to someone quick and agile like Ryan Bowen or Scott Padgett.
The Warriors continued pounding the Rockets and their poor defensive assignments for the remainder of the game. Cabarkapa and Warrior guard Mickael Pietrus went on a rampage, and the Warriors went on an incredible spree where they shot ten consecutive three-point shots, hitting 6 of them and tying the game on a three-pointer plus a foul by the frustrated Rockets defense.
T-Mac hit a jumper to make it 89-91. Pietrus was fouled on the next play and hit one free throw to make it a one point game with 2:30 left.
But the basketball saying, “live by the three, die by the three” proved to be the Warriors’ doom. Of those 4 misses in their 10 consecutive three point attempts, 3 of them occurred consecutively in the final two minutes.
During this time, Yao added two free throws to extend the Rockets’ cushion to three points, 93-90 with 49 seconds to go. With the Warriors in possession, the Rocket defense prevented any three-point shots, but allowed easy layups.
The Warriors immediately fouled on the inbounds pass to Wesley, but he calmly hit both free throws to make the game 92-95 with ten seconds to go. Again the Rockets allowed a two-point play, and Wesley was fouled and hit free throws to bring the score to 94-97 with 4.3 seconds left. Pietrus attempted a Hail Mary shot in the final seconds, but his 3-point fell short and the Rockets escaped with a narrow victory.
How is Juwan?
Tragically Juwan Howard fell to the ground motionless for several minutes early in the fourth. He was carried out by teammates and left the locker room with his leg wrapped in bandages. He will visit the doctor tomorrow, and everyone in the Rockets organization is holding their breath for today’s health report.
How did Yao do?
Yao ended with 14 points and 15 rebounds in 29 minutes of play. Yao was doing well defensively, but seemed to have a bad day offensively, not scoring any points in the first quarter. On a good note, his rebounding has steadily improved lately. Yao was also mildly sick, suffering from a cough that made him nearly lose his voice.
In post-game interviews, reporters asked about his conditioning and whether or not he will have energy for the playoffs. Yao answered that he isn’t as conditioned as his teammates, but uses energy-conserving techniques to overcome it.
Yao gave the example that he will run with full speed to defend if few of his teammates are in position to defend, but will slow down a bit when his other teammates are already present. He answered that he wasn’t looking forward to the playoffs yet, but was just happy that he will have a chance to rest after the road trip.
Warrior 3-point shooting
The game was a nailbiter with many Warriors having career nights in three point shooting. Zarko broke several career high milestones tonight: minutes played, points scored, 3 pointers, first double-double, FG%, FT%, and 3P%. Against the Rockets he looked like Dirk Nowitzki. Keep an eye out for this guy. Pietrus also scored a career high 4 three-pointers.
The Rockets return home, but only have a days rest before playing their next game against Portland. Let’s hope they can extend the winning streak to six games on Wednesday night.
To read the Houston Chronicle’s post-game analysis, click here.