MONDAY, 4/25/05 – When you think about the most important moments in Yao’s NBA career thus far, you think of that rookie season where he shocked the Lakers and scored 20 points that made Charles Barkley kiss Kenny Smith’s donkey after losing a bet. Or you think of those famous “Shaq vs. Yao” matchups from that rookie year. Or maybe the three-pointer at Golden State. Or the no-look behind-the-head passes to Cuttino Mobley or Moochie Norris. Or maybe that behind-the-back dribble and fast break dunk in Portland a few weeks ago.
It’s time to add one more moment to the list. Monday night’s game between Dallas and Houston might go down as the game that gives Yao a reputation as a big-time playoff player we have all looked forward to seeing.
Yao led all scorers with 33 points on an astounding 13-of-14 shooting (the one miss he had shouldn’t have been counted as a shot attempt), made 7-of-7 free throws, grabbed 8 rebounds and had two blocks. In the first quarter alone he made 5-of-5 shots and scored 17 points.
Yao had plenty of help, with T-Mac being his usual sensational self, creating a Kobe-esque (and dare I say it, Jordan-esque) playoff legacy before our very eyes these past two games against the Mavericks.
On Monday night, T-Mac hit a jump shot with 2.2 seconds remaining to give the Rockets a 113-111 victory, putting them up 2-0 lead in the series and capping a night where he almost recorded a triple-double: 28 points, 8 rebounds, 10 assists. He also had three blocks. Amazing.
As great as the two superstars were, we cannot forget about the three-headed monster of Jon Barry, Bob Sura and Mike James. James had a respectable 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting, Barry (16 points) hit three consecutive treys, and Sura (14) made four three-pointers in clutch moments. Sura and James collectively made 8-of-11 shots from behind the arc. Redirkulous…I mean, ridiculous.
While Dirk Nowitzki struggled from the field for the second game in a row, shooting 8-of-21 from the field (but scoring 26) and the Mavericks making a respectable 50% of their shots, the Rockets shot 55%. It could have been over 60% and not such a close game if David Wesley hadn’t shot 1-for-10, but as we all know, when David gets hot…watch out.
Here’s a recap of the top moments for each quarter:
Yao started his fantastic performance right away. His footwork and assertiveness in making moves toward the basket were flawless, schooling Erick Dampier and Shawn Bradley. He scored 11 of Houston’s first 17 points, and had 15 points in the first 9 minutes of the game.
Near the end of the quarter, Yao showed some strength and determination by literally ripping the ball out of the air as Shawn Bradley tried to get his hands on it, then went up strong and laid it in. Wow, what got into Yao? He finished the quarter with an incredible 17 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the quarter and 7-of-7 from the line.
Dallas’ Keith Van Horn was giving Yao troubles on the other end of the floor, scoring with ease a couple of times until he picked up his third foul in the quarter, which put him on the bench for a significant number of minutes the rest of the game. I thought Van Horn getting into foul trouble so early was a pivotal moment in the game.
But the highlight reel play of the game, and perhaps the entire playoffs that will be seen over-and-over again for many years to come, occurred at the 5:04 mark of the first quarter. T-Mac drove baseline, elevated, and threw down one of the most vicious one-handed and posterizing jams ever seen in the NBA. This time the victim was Bradley, everyone’s favorite guy to dunk on. I have literally watched that replay 20 times, and I still cannot get enough of it! If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t worry, you will. Just watch Thursday’s Game 3, and you’re guaranteed to see it in TNT’s pre-game coverage.
The jam was so unbelievable, there was a split-second that, after Bradley ducked, T-Mac came down on his back and looked like he was riding him like a horse. And the expression of intensity on T-Mac’s face was one of those classic shots you’ll see in video montages throughout these playoffs. Even the Dallas crowd was in awe, and teammate Jon Barry, who was sitting on the bench, actually got up and rolled to the floor in an ecstatic tickle. Very amusing moment.
In Houston’s last bucket of the quarter, McGrady put up a shot in the lane and missed, but grabbed the rebound from Bradley, then made a sweet twisting move underneath the basket to get the ball over Bradley, through Jerry Stackhouse holding down his arm, and up off the glass for the score and the foul. That was a big-time score that you would expect more from an All-Star power forward, not a shooting guard or small forward of T-Mac’s size. With that score, the Rockets closed the quarter and surprisingly led 34-30, and had made 13-of-13 free throws.
In the second quarter, Jon Barry hit not one, not two, but three 3-pointers in a row that pushed the Rockets’ lead from 36-32 to 45-37!
The lead didn’t last, though, since coach Avery Johnson had Josh Howard take it to Yao and scored fairly easily four times to tie it at 55-55. Making an adjustment defensively, coach Jeff Van Gundy put David Wesley on Howard, and it paid off with Wesley stripping the ball from Howard on the next possession.
Yao continued his hot shooting streak, making 3-of-4 shots, including a quick baseline move around Nowitzki for a sweet layup, and hitting two jumpers from the outside. Yao was judged to have taken a missed shot when replays clearly showed he was stripped of the ball as he was going up. So that shouldn’t have counted as an attempt. The NBA league office should take a look at that play again and reverse the call. If they do, then Yao will have shot a perfect 13-for-13 from the floor. C’mon league office…do it!
In the final possession of the quarter, Scott Padgett was brought into the game, and in his very little time on the floor, with just a few seconds on the clock he grabbed a rebound with one-hand over and behind his head, and in mid-air threw it off the glass for an amazing put-back to close the first half with Houston leading, 60-56.
The Rockets didn’t shoot that well in the quarter and couldn’t stop the Mavericks, who went on a 19-8 run to take a 75-68 lead. Just when you thought the Rockets were going to let the game slip away, Bob Sura hit a big-time three-pointer to close it to 75-71.
A few minutes later, T-Mac drove to the hole and missed a shot that was blocked off the glass, but Yao grabbed the rebound and dunked it home to keep it close, 78-75, when the Rockets needed it.
T-Mac followed that score up with a huge three-pointer, then blew by everyone for a left-handed layup to close the deficit to 85-80. That’s when Barry hit another huge three-pointer to keep the deficit at three-points, 85-82. Give the Rockets a lot of credit for not giving up and battling to stay in the game, and T-Mac scoring 9 points on 4-of-7 shooting.
The Rockets went into the fourth quarter trailing 88-84 and within striking distance.
The Mavericks hit two three-pointers in a row to take a 94-86 lead, and it looked like the game was going to slip away for the Rockets once again. But after Houston whittled the lead down with some free throws, Mike James was clutch by hitting a running floater to cut the deficit to 96-92.
Then Barry hit another clutch three-pointer to close it to 96-95, but Dallas went on a 6-0 run and it looked like the Rockets had run out of gas, trailing 102-95 with 5:41 remaining.
But T-Mac responded by elevating and shooting a fallaway over Nowitzki to cut it 102-97. Then Jon Barry took it strong to the hole and made a layup by going around Nowitzki, and big-time Mike (Jame)s stole the ball and scored on an acrobatic layup with 4:20 remaining to cut the deficit to 103-101.
Nowitzki hit two free throws, then Sura responded with another three-pointer to make it only a 105-104 Dallas lead.
That’s when Yao caught a bounce pass in the middle of the lane and hit a clutch hook shot while being fouled (no foul was called) to give Houston it’s first lead in a long time, 106-105, with 2:49 remaining.
After Nowitzki hit a hook shot in the lane, Sura responded with another three-pointer! That gave Houston a 109-107 lead with 2:15 remaining.
A little over a minute later, T-Mac drove into the middle of the lane, executed a perfect pass to Yao on the baseline, and Yao drove the hole and slammed it through for a 111-109 lead with 1:06 remaining.
After Nowitzki responded with a jumper to tie it at 111-111, Van Gundy, T-Mac and Yao decided not to call time-out, but to continue play so Dallas’ defense couldn’t get set. That’s when with 10 seconds remaining, T-Mac brought the ball up the court fairly easily, went around a Yao pick at the three-point line, and shot a long two-pointer with 2.2 seconds remaining to give Houston a 113-111 lead.
Michael Finley’s shot missed at the buzzer, and Houston walked off the floor amidst a stunned crowd of 20,000 at American Airlines Center with its second straight victory.
One statistic that jumps out to me being the difference in this game was not only Yao’s 33 points, but the Rockets 89% free throw shooting from the line, hitting 24-of-27. Dallas had about the same number of attempts (26), but only 19 of them. Those five points meant the difference in this game.
With the Rockets holding a 2-0 lead in the series, they come back home to Toyota Center, a place where they don’t really hold that great of a home-court advantage. But the Rockets are playing with so much confidence right now, it wouldn’t matter if they played in a high school gymnasium.