SATURDAY, 4/30/05 – It’s the day after the Rockets’ gut-wrenching loss to the Mavericks in Game 4, and I’m prepared to file my report after a painful 24 hours. Not only did the Rockets lose to ruin my day, but I realized I left my laptop power cord at home and didn’t have enough battery power to file my report last night. Yesterday was a disaster all the way around.
After attending yesterday’s game, I am resigned to the fact that no matter how loud I yell and scream, the fans cannot influence the outcome of the game in this series. Houston fans were louder than they have been all season, and their will and determination still didn’t help the Rockets perform better in the clutch. In fact, all that pressure from the home fans may have made it worse.
As we have seen so many times this season, and in this series, the Rockets couldn’t execute in the fourth quarter again. It shocks me that a veteran team like this one can be so shaky. But I guess I was saying the same thing last season with veterans like Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, and Kelvin Cato.
At least Saturday’s Game 4 loss was not as bad as Game 3 where they got outscored 20-0 in the fourth quarter. But a 12-2 run near the end of the fourth quarter when the Rockets had another semi-comfortable lead showed Houston’s lack of poise in the clutch.
What’s sad is that everyone has been talking about how T-Mac might be able to break through the ‘wall’ he has encountered in his 8-year career and carry his team to a win of a playoff series. But the Rockets are still far from that goal after blowing a 2-0 series lead, and now are in a fight for their playoff lives.
The question now is if Houston is going to fold after hitting some adversity, or bust through it like those amazing 1994 and 1995 Rocket teams did on their way to winning two championships.
Before I go through my quarter-by-quarter thoughts of the game, I think it’s important for me to mention what ESPN analysts Tim Legler and Greg Anthony said about Yao’s performance in this game. Legler thought Yao played “weak,” and that it cost them the victory. Anthony thought this series could determine Yao’s legacy as a player.
Wow. No pressure, Yao.
Before providing more macro-level analysis, here is my obligatory quarter-by-quarter review, as I witnessed it:
Right before tip-off, T-Mac walked around the perimeter of the Rockets’ half of the court by himself, clapping his hands, which got all the Houston fans excited as they saw their top warrior prepare himself for battle. That was a cool moment that the TNT cameras probably didn’t pick up on.
The Rockets started off cold, missing all kinds of shots and turning the ball over multiple times, with T-Mac himself losing the ball several times. The Mavericks took an 18-10 lead by easily getting to the hole for high percentage shots. Obviously the Rockets were tight and sloppy, and you knew early on it was going to be a grind-it-out kind of game.
The Rockets finally woke up and got on track by going on a 10-0 run. A key play occurred with the Rockets having the final possession of the quarter. All they needed to do was let the shot (and game) clock wind down to about 3 seconds, and then take a shot to either take a 24-23 lead, or just trail by one, 23-22.
Instead, T-Mac took it to the hole a bit too early, and Dirk Nowitzki had enough time to hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to make it 26-22 after the first quarter. Every avoidable point given up in this game would prove to be crucial in the end.
T-Mac and Yao finally started to light it up. T-Mac scored 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting, and Yao made all three of his shot attempts and scored 7, and Houston took a 51-48 lead into halftime.
Dirk Nowitzki was 2-of-7 for the first half, and Erick Dampier was scoreless with no shot attempts.
By halftime the Rockets were shooting 54% compared to Dallas 43%. Unlike previous games between the Mavericks and Rockets, the difference between the Rockets’ and Mavericks’ free throw attempts weren’t too significant, with Houston making 10-of-12 and the Mavericks making 12-of-14.
The Rockets started off hot, with Scott Padgett and T-Mac hitting back-to-back 3-pointers to start the quarter, giving the Rockets a 57-48 lead. But then Dallas’ Jason Terry scored the next 8 points for the Mavericks, and were back in the game trailing only 59-56.
The Rockets would go on another run and extend their lead to 70-62 after T-Mac hit an unbelievable shot in the lane. But the pesky Terry scored 5 straight points to bring the Mavs back again to 70-67.
Then a critical part of the game occurred at the 4:26 mark. Yao picked up his fourth foul of the game on a questionable offensive foul, and Jeff Van Gundy took Yao out of the game. But for some reason Van Gundy put Scott Padgett in the game instead of Dikembe Mutombo. This is one of the few bad coaching moves Van Gundy has made in this series.
On the ensuing Maverick possession, Nowitzki easily went to the hole on Padgett, scored and was fouled. After Dirk sank the free throw for the critical three-point play, the game was tied at 70-70. Van Gundy finally got a clue and put Mutombo in immediately for Padgett, which was three points too late.
By the end of the third quarter, the game was tied 77-77. Terry was unstoppable in the quarter (3-of-4 three-pointers), scoring 16 of Dallas’ 29 points. For Houston, T-Mac was even better, scoring 17 of Houston’s 26 points on 6-of-10 shooting. He had 34 points by the end of the third, and was probably on his way to 42+ points. You knew the rest of the game was going to come down to who could execute the best.
The Rockets made it 79-78 when Yao crashed the boards and followed up a missed layup attempt by David Wesley for a layup of his own. After Houston stole a Dallas pass, Jon Barry scored on a fast break layup. The Rocketes ended a 6-1 run when Wesley, who looked like he was going to take a three-pointer, pump faked to shed off a defender, then took a couple of steps toward the basket and it looked like he was going to shoot it. But instead he lofted a pass to the right of the rim, where Yao grabbed the alley-oop and threw it down for a dunk that gave the Rockets an 83-78 lead with 9:33 remaining.
I made a note to myself that after these two baskets by Yao, I thought Yao was stepping up and making a difference in the game. On the next Dallas possession, Yao had a great block on Nowitzki, and he was really making his presence felt. I thought with the way he was playing, the Rockets would pull out the win.
But then things changed quickly when Yao picked up his fifth foul on another questionable offensive foul call with 9:03 remaining. I knew at the time this was a huge call. Regardless if the call was questionable, Yao seems to put himself in position to get these calls against him, and at some point you have to wonder if it’s the refs’ fault, or Yao’s.
Like Game 3, the Rockets held an 88-82 lead, and all they had to do with 5:40 remaining was to get a few stops and hit 3 or 4 baskets, and they would win.
With 3:38 remaining, the score hadn’t changed. The Rockets inability to score the past few possessions had me wondering aloud why Van Gundy hadn’t put Yao back into the game. Sure, he had five fouls, but this was the time where they needed him the most. The offense was obviously struggling, and they missed Yao’s presence inside, which the Mavericks couldn’t match.
Van Gundy finally put Yao in the game, but it didn’t help. Terry hit a three-pointer to make it 88-85 Rockets. Then Barry missed a shot, and the Mavericks came back and battled hard on the offensive boards by getting three shots at a tip-in bucket, and finally converted, getting them within one point, 88-87.
That’s when one of the biggest plays of the game occurred. T-Mac dished the ball to Yao, who was cutting to the basket unimpeded, but Yao dropped the ball and it went out of bounds. That play would have put the Rockets up 90-87, and was probably the play that made ESPN’s Legler and Anthony remark that Yao is not a superstar, and essentially choked.
As everyone knows who saw the game, the Mavericks went on to complete a 12-2 run on a three-pointer by Jason Terry, which made it 94-90.
The rest of the game is too painful for me to even describe here, and I’m mainly talking about the play where the ball went off T-Mac to go out of bounds and end the Rockets’ chances to tie or win the game with 6.1 seconds remaining in the game. As much as I wanted to NOT believe it, the replays showed the ball grazed the back of T-Mac’s hand as it went out of bounds. It was the right call. That was it. Game over.
After a great three quarters where T-Mac scored 34 points, he only scored two points in the fourth quarter to finish with 36 points on 13-of-26 shooting. For the Mavericks, Terry was the difference in this game, scoring eight points to finish with 32 points.
I guess you could say Yao choked by dropping that ball out of bounds. Time will tell us if that’s a play that Yao won’t ever be able to overcome, kind of like Boston’s Bill Buckner letting that ground ball go through his legs in the 1986 World Series that will go down in infamy. However, in this game Yao had one of his best games defensively, recording five big blocks at crucial moments. But the foul trouble and the ability to only get seven shots, even if he hit six of them, didn’t help his teammates.
This was one of the toughest losses for the Rockets to absorb. Obviously, the Mavericks have an abundance of skill players because owner Mark Cuban has a fat wallet and doesn’t care how much it costs to buy a winner. Is that fair to other fans around the league that he is willing to outspend everyone else? It doesn’t seem to me.
Hopefully the Rockets can show the rest of the league that if you work hard and not go out and acquire guys who can fill up the basket at will, that you can still win a championship. Hell, I’ll be happy if we just win the series.
To take my mind off the loss, I stopped by the “Yao Restaurant” on the west side of Houston that Yao’s parents partly run and own. It wasn’t bad. The interior of the restaurant was appealing, built with very modern materials. Attractive, modern furniture was in the bar area, including red leather chairs and booths, great Yao memorabilia and photos. The staff was also very friendly, and I was pleased with the quality of the appetizers. I just hope this place becomes as famous as Michael Jordan’s restaurant in Chicago, and not just because of the food, but for the name it shares with a six-time World Champion.