by Chia-Chi and John
SUNDAY, 3/27/05 – Chia-Chi: Today’s game against the Spurs was an important one as the final weeks before the playoffs wind down and the top teams vie for home court advantage. The Rockets have the second-best record in the league after January 1st and the Spurs have the best overall. With Tim Duncan injured and the Spurs faltering, the time seemed ripe for the Rockets to finally win against the Spurs on the road.
Jon Barry also reported that Yao has been down on himself lately because he felt he hasn’t been playing well and that the team has been supporting him. The despair from T-Mac‘s injury in the game against the Hornets lifted as the Rocket’s high scorer started this game against San Antonio. T-Mac said before the game that he thought he had broken his leg, but was relieved to be playing, although he was surprised how tender it felt.
Regardless of injury, T-Mac started the game red hot, scoring the Rockets’ first four points. While he started the game running a little slower and testing the hip, his play was not affected by the injury, in part because he had no choice but to play faster ball against the smaller and quicker Spurs. It was also clear from the beginning that the Spurs weren’t planning on losing just because Tim Duncan was out, playing with great intensity that converted to multiple fast break points.
John’s take of the first quarter: I thought T-Mac’s scoring of 6 of Houston’s first eight points was amazing considering the kind of injury it looked like had on Friday night. T-Mac carried the load while everyone else struggled on 3-of-12 shooting.
I had the pleasure to attend the game at San Antonio’s SBC Center, and every time T-Mac scored, a nice roar from a surprisingly large number of Houston fans erupted. It appeared many fans made the 4-hour drive from Houston for this Easter Sunday game.
Yao was 1-of-4 in the quarter, which was disappointing considering he wasn’t playing against that great of a defender, Rasho Nesterovic. On the offensive end, Nesterovic scored 6 points on 3-of-4 shooting, most of them hook shots over Yao.
On top of that, the Rockets were sloppy with the ball, turning it over six times! The Rockets’ Mike James’ amazing desperation 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter with .4 seconds remaining kept the score somewhat respectable, with the Rockets trailing 24-17.
Chia-Chi: Yao came back strong in the second quarter with six points, but was continually frustrated by the physical play of the Spurs and the leniency of the referees. The combination of intensity and lenient foul calls made for a physically competitive game. Fortunately, Yao avoided many of the ticky-tack fouls that have plagued him in recent games and only had one foul in the first half. The Rockets trailed since the start, but a clutch last second three-pointer from McGrady pulled the Rockets within 3 points, 39-36, to end the half.
John’s take of the second quarter and first half: Although Yao wasn’t picking up dumb fouls, he was having a hard time holding onto the ball when passes or rebounds came his way that didn’t look too difficult to grab. It was kind of embarrassing.
Manu Ginobili was killing the Rockets by penetrating and going to the rack at will, scoring 10 points in the half. That dude is tough to guard. With Tim Duncan was out of the game because of an injury, other Spurs players stepped up their game in the first half like Ginobili (10 points), Nesterovic (10 points), and even ancient Robert Horry had 10 points.
Depending on how you look at it, the shooting for both teams was either pretty bad, or the defense on both sides was pretty good, with the Rockets shooting 38% and the Spurs shooting 37%. The Rockets carelessness really hurt, turning the ball twice as many times as the Spurs (8-4). And the Spurs’ speed gave the Rockets problems, leading 10-0 in fast break points.
If it wasn’t for T-Mac’s 16 points by halftime, or Tony Parker’s 0-for-5 shooting (mainly missed layups), this game would have been over. Bob Sura had 0 points, shooting 0-for-2. Same for David Wesley. Jon Barry only had 2 points on 1-of-3 shooting. Scott Padgett outscored all of them combined, hitting a three-pointer and a nice long jumper for 5 points. Yao had a quiet 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting.
Chia-Chi: After the half both teams played with more intensity, but the defense on both sides neutralized each other. The only element that was not
contained was Manu Ginobili, who split Rocket defenders whenever he wanted. Bill Walton put it best when he said, “Holy Ginobli!”
John’s take of the third quarter: T-Mac had two passes in a row picked off by Spurs early in the quarter, adding to the increasing turnover count. But he made 4-of-7 shots for 8 points, helping the Rockets finally make a run. As a team, they hit 10-of-17 shots to take a 56-55 lead at the end of the quarter. This was what we expected from a veteran club like the Rockets: they may start off slow, but they should finally pull it together, right?
Chia-Chi: Into the fourth the Rockets had a 5-point lead, but two turnovers off Dikembe Mutombo killed momentum-turning opportunities. The Spurs tied the game at 8:00 in the fourth off a Brent Barry three, and they just kept rolling after that. Barry hit two more threes and Ginobili and Parker simply out-hustled the Rockets to extend the lead. Yao and company tried to make a push, but the Spurs defense was too much, forcing turnovers and risky shots. The Spurs outscored the Rockets 28-14 in the fourth, running down the clock and earning the 83-70 win.
John’s take of the fourth quarter: I thought the Rockets were going to pull away in this game when T-Mac hit a long bomb to make it 60-55. Defensively, the Rockets were buoyed by Dikembe’s defense, rebounding, and grit, even diving onto the floor for a loose ball.
But the turning point of the game occurred around the 8 minute mark, when Dikembe played great defense and forced Brent Barry to take a bad shot (despite the very INACCURATE call from TV analyst Hubie Brown that Dikembe whacked him across the head), and on the other end Padgett blew an easy layup and Brent Barry came back with a three-pointer to tie it at 60-60, which really hurt.
Then Yao had a ball stolen right out of his hands by Ginobili, who came down and was fouled. After his two free throws, the Spurs led 62-60. Then Parker hit a jumper to make it 64-60. As the Spurs continued to make shots, the Rockets fell apart offensively. The Houston guards weren’t contributing anything, and T-Mac’s jump shots started going south. With four minutes remaining in the game, the Rockets had only scored 6 points in the quarter and were down by 8 points. There was no run left in the Rockets this time.
The Rockets collapse to the Spurs was reminiscent of loss in San Antonio on February 23rd when they held tough for three quarters, but fell apart in the fourth and lost 99-81. What is it about San Antonio that keeps them from getting over the hump?
Chia-Chi: While the Rockets are a playoff team, how far they will go is questioned. Today’s game showed that while good, they still have many areas in which to mature. From the gate the Spurs played their game and their tempo, and the Rockets never found a way around that.
The inside-out game that has led to 20 and 30 point blowouts never even got a chance to begin. Wesley shot only 4 times and the Rockets as a whole only hit one three-point shot. Even worse, they only attempted eight. The Spurs’ defense was one reason for their lack of success, but the Rockets clearly showed a lack of strategy.
John’s take: When the Houston guards of Barry (1-of-4 for two points), Wesley (1-of-4 for two points), Sura (4-of-6 for 8 points) and James (2-of-7 for 5 points) struggle like they did on Sunday, they have no chance. It’s too bad Barry couldn’t match his brother Brent’s performance (6-of-11 for 17 points), who hit big shots down the stretch to be a key to the Spurs victory.
How Did Yao do?
Chia-Chi: Yao had a relatively quiet, yet productive game. Jeff Van Gundy surely had a screaming fit about Yao challenging fruitless shots and picking up fouls. This game Yao was much better on not fouling, but also less active in challenging shots, at times just sticking his arms up. Offensively, Yao had a good game against a great defense. He missed an easy 3 foot shot, but was also solid on others. In general, the Rockets are still having difficulty knowing when to pass Yao the ball.
John’s take: Some more points about Yao’s game. In general, when you see him play in person, you notice more things you don’t notice on TV. Like how many times he falls to the floor after contact, or not even after that much contact. I wouldn’t call it flopping, but it’s borderline.
Also, the lack of quickness in responding to balls that come his way is evident. He also didn’t show the aggressiveness we’ve seen in big games this year, like a few weeks ago in Phoenix when he dominated Amare Stoudemire. And when he’s not aggressive and is not successful creating his own shot, he really needs to rely on other guys to get him the ball when he’s open in order to score. He’s a big target, and if he can’t create his own shot, his teammates should try to get him the ball while he’s on the move to the basket for easy dunks. He had a couple on Sunday, but not enough.
Miscellaneous notes from John:
Bruce Bowen showed why he’s a dirty player. While T-Mac elevated for a jump shot, Bowen did the same thing he did to Kobe Bryant last year to knock him out of a few games: overtly stretch his leg underneath his landing area hoping he would land on his leg and twist his ankle. Luckily T-Mac avoided an injury. Excuse my French, but Bruce Bowen should be called Bruce Bastard.
I had a few beefs with San Antonio’s SBC Center. Their Web site shows that parking is free in lots 5 & 7, but when I drove up to Lot 7, they charged me 8 bucks! I call that mistruth in advertising! Click here to see the SBC Center parking rates to see what I’m talking about.
During each break in the action, I swear that there must have been 10 “entertainment” events involving select fans shooting balls or objects into containers, promoting one product after another. Some of the brands promoted were Diamond Shamrock, Southwest Airlines, H.E.B (a grocery store chain), Mrs. Baird’s Breads, Nesquick, Cingular, and of course, SBC, just to name a few. I can understand having to pay the bills, but it got to be too much!
My seat was in the upper deck of the arena, and after the game the only way to exit the upper level was to stand in line for what seemed like an eternity to get on one of the few escalators. I tried to find stairs to exit, but after walking a couple of hundred feet expecting to see a sign for an exit, there were none to be found! I started getting angry because if there had been a fire in the building, with thousands of people panicking and very few exits with logjams of people at each escalator trying to scratch and claw their way out of that deathtrap, the SBC Center could soon stand for Scorched Bodies Container!!
After I finally got down to ground level, I asked a security guy where the stairs were located because of how bad of a fire hazard it was on the upper level. He told me that there were emergency exits, but they were covered up! Give me a break!
Regardless, if emergency exits did exist, there was no signage to tell you where the stairs were located, probably because all the room for signage was taken up by corporate sponsors promoting their products, signs for food, and more food.
To read the Houston Chronicle’s post-game analysis, click here.