by Chia-Chi and John
5/5/05, THURSDAY – We can all breathe a sigh of relief as the Rockets avoided losing four straight games and forced a deciding game 7 in Dallas this Saturday with a 101-83 against the Mavericks on Thursday night. In what has to be the most drama-filled series, with terms like “life suspension” and everyone falling into camps about “who did what” correctly, Thursday’s game was simply about good clean basketball.
The Rockets had been in this situation before them: Win or spend the rest of the series from a Lazy Boy. Like Yao recently said, the Rockets were like animals back into a corner. And indeed, the Rockets finally played with the effort and urgency so lamented by Jeff Van Gundy as necessary to win in a league where so little differentiates winning teams from losing ones.
As was the case with most people watching the game, I missed the first quarter due to the Celtics/Pacers game going into overtime. The scene at the start of the second had Yao out with two fouls and Dallas ahead 26-18.
The Rockets came roaring back in the second, mainly behind the efforts of backup point guard Mike James, and put themselves in control of the game by halftime. The notable plays were James’ incredible stretch of offensive and defensive plays where he scored 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
Constantly swiping at balls and using his speed to his advantage, in one stretch James collected two steals on two consecutive defensive plays, and converted on the opposite end for three straight field goals to pull Houston within two points.
Ryan Bowen also shot the ball well in the quarter (3-of-4 for 7 points) to put the Rockets ahead. T-Mac then put the frosting on the cake by scoring two consecutive threes to end the period, while being fouled on the last play and converting for four points, giving the Rockets a 52-45 lead at halftime.
The beginning of the third had Bob Sura sending a strong signal to the Mavericks that the Rockets were not to be taken lightly. On a routine foul Sura pulled Josh Howard down and then “inadvertently” stepped over him for a technical. This was obviously payback for a hard foul that Howard put on Yao in the second quarter.
Otherwise, the quarter was played with a lack of aggression. Yao played terribly. I have never seen him play so poorly during a stretch of a game. Yao scored only 4 points in the quarter, turned the ball over and had his shot blocked multiple times, missed rebounds, and had his shot blocked multiple times.
On one particular fumbled pick-and-roll, T-Mac was so frustrated that he pumped his fist and yelled. On the bench he had a few choice words for Yao. What was said is just between the two men, but most likely it went along the lines of “We need you.” Yao had to step up.
But Yao didn’t get the chance. Behind the awesome defensive production of Dikembe Mutombo and the Rockets’ bench, the Rockets began one of the most prolific fourth quarters in their playoff history, allowing only 13 Mavericks points while fouling out two Maverick starters.
The quarter and the game can be attributed mainly to the extra output from the bench. Jon Barry was clutch, hitting two threes in a row to give the Rockets a cushion and scoring 12 for the quarter.
The best play of the quarter was Mutombo’s block of Jason Terry, who came at Mutombo at full speed, was rejected by Deke, leadingto T-Mac getting the ball, lazily bringing it up court, and scoring a three and putting the Rockets ahead by 14
The Houston defense was air tight as the Rockets completed a 19-0 run to secure the lead. The Mavericks shot 15% in the fourth quarter as they went ice cold.
While it was good to win at home to extend the series, you get the feeling that the Rockets still have a long road ahead of them. Yes, they won, but they had to win. They were playing Game 6 on their home court, the series was on the line, they faced the possibility of losing four in a row, their coach was under attack, etc.
The Rockets won because they had to win, they fed off a situation that doesn’t exist all the time- and more importantly, a situation that won’t exist in game 7.
Yao played a miserable game and you can only hope he doesn’t continue to fade into the background. And while the team played well, the refs were surprisingly helpful. Fouls and violations that I didn’t even see were called, as opposed to the other way around in game 5. You can’t help but think the refs met in a back room and said, “Well, we stole game 5 from them, so we’ll be nicer in Game 6. But for Game 7 we’ll revert back to the easy calls again, just to get everyone off our
And while the Rockets played with incredible heart this game, you wonder how much they have left in the tank and if this is what Dallas expected, to some degree. The Mavericks played just hard enough to have the Rockets expend an enormous amount of energy for a blowout win. The Rockets played with a lot of heart, and Dallas relaxed, but you know that won’t happen again.
Game 7 this Saturday decides the series and this time there is no ref sympathy, no home court, no lazy opponents, just the pressure of winning and going on, or having everything in the series come to a crashing end.
The Rockets need to find their game, find their confidence, and find their stride independent of the situation. They need the fire they played with today on a consistent basis. Game 7 is a game that will test the character of this newly-minted Rockets team. Jeff Van Gundy’s assessment was such: “If we can be within striking distance with 6 minutes left, we will be in good shape.” And for that to happen all the players need to perform at their best,
John’s take of the game:
After covering five grueling games in this series, including the refs’ rip-off job in Game 5, I was exhausted in covering each game in detail like I have been doing. That’s why I asked Chia-Chi to cover Game 6. I felt as exhausted as the Rockets. I almost felt like Yao probably did, and by looking at the way he played Thursday night, you can tell he wasn’t prepared for the game either.
Yao only scored 8 points on 3-of-8 shooting. When he did score, he looked unstoppable. But as Chia-Chia mentioned, he dropped easy passes and had his shot blocked multiple times, and you knew it wasn’t the same Yao we were watching.
There was one play where Yao defended well against Jason Terry, who drove to the hole and missed because of Yao’s presence. But for some stupid reason (and I saw the same thing happen in Game 4 in the crucial fourth quarter), Yao drifted out of bounds behind Terry, taking him completely out of position to grab the defensive rebound. Uh, Yao…there’s a game going on. After defending Terry, can you get back under the boards rather than take yourself out of the play? We need all the help we can get underneath the glass.
Fortunately, the Rockets didn’t need to rely on Yao too much because the Rockets bench finally made the impact we have been waiting for all series. Part of that bench support included backup Dikembe Mutombo, who had 10 rebounds and four blocks. He was playing so well, there was no way Jeff Van Gundy could take him out as the Rockets made their run in the fourth quarter.
Mike James also provided the spark the Rockets so desperately needed from their bench since starting point guard Bob Sura was awful, scoring zero points and turning the ball over twice in 21 minutes. If James doesn’t score his 22 points in Game 6, the Rockets probably lose this game. James has created new matchup problems for the Mavericks, which is just what the Rockets need to make the Mavericks have to think more about who they have to defend in Game 7.
James’ speed and ability to get to the hole bodes well for giving other Rocket players opportunities. I can see the Mavericks sending another defender toward James as he tries to get to the hole on Saturday night. That should leave someone open, which I anticipate will be Yao, who can cut through the lane and either catch a pass (the key word here is “catch”) from James in the lane for a dunk, or follow-up on a missed shot off the glass for a rebound and dunk.
Other bench players who stepped it up were Ryan Bowen, who came into the game to defend Dirk Nowitzki (19 points on 5-of-22 shooting) so that T-Mac could guard Jerry Stackhouse, who hit six straight shots to start the game. Bowen also chipped in with 7 points, which was welcomed ‘frosting’ to the Rockets offense.
And what can you say about Jon Barry, who really hasn’t been a factor over the past few games like he was during the regular season? He scored 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting, and 12 points in the pivotal fourth quarter (2-of-2 from three-point land, 4-of-4 from the free throw line) as the Rockets pulled away on a 19-0 run.
The beautiful thing about the game is that the Rockets showed the Mavericks they can go on offensive scoring outbursts to match the kind of runs Dallas has shown this series (i.e., 20-0 run in Game 3). This kind of production has to do wonders for Houston’s confidence heading into Game 7.
More about Game 7
I think the keys in Game 7 will be Jon Barry being able to hit outside shots. He has his confidence back, and he needs to hit a few clutch shots like that down the stretch.
Another guy who I think will be key is Scott Padgett. For the Rockets to win, they need as much production from behind the arc as possible. If Barry struggles, they need another reserve to go wild and give the Mavericks someone else to think about from long-range distance. I think Padgett is due for a big game.
David Wesley is also going to need to play well. He scored six points on 2-of-6 shooting, and they are going to need all they can get from him since he is a starter and on the floor so much.
I really believe Yao is going to have a big game on Saturday night. After covering every game he has played this season, I know it’s very rare for him to have multiple games where he struggles. Playing poorly in one game seems to energize and focus him to playing well in the next game. The Rockets were lucky to win this game with him only scoring eight points, especially considering no one on the Mavericks can guard him.
Yao also seems to play well on the road for a guy whose ego can become noticeably fragile. The main thing that concerns me are all the free throws he has been missing lately. He has never gone through such a stretch of missed free throws, and we don’t have much experience with how long it takes him to make the adjustments to get himself back on track because this really hasn’t been a problem before. Obviously Yao’s confidence on the line is very shaky, and I don’t think it will get any better in front of 20,000 raucous fans at American Airlines Center on Saturday night.
So my plan would be the following: If Yao starts missing free throws late in the third quarter or beginning of the fourth quarter, pull him. You know the Mavericks are going to start fouling him intentionally to rattle him even further. Hopefully by that time, T-Mac will have enough in the tank to carry the Rockets to a victory in the tail end of the fourth quarter.
Speaking of T-Mac, how can we forget his importance in Game 7? We haven’t even mentioned until now how incredible he was Thursday night. We seem to take it for granted by now: 37 points on 14-of-28 shooting. 6-of-10 from behind the arc. 8 rebounds. 7 assists.
For the Rockets to win, they will need a fresh T-Mac in the fourth quarter. I have noticed in the Rockets’ losses in this series, he seems to take on too much and put up some ill-advised shots (like three-pointers with plenty of time on the shot clock), reminding me somewhat of a panicky Steve Francis. T-Mac will have to play a smart game in the fourth quarter and try not to think he needs to have some Michael Jordan moments down the stretch. If the shot is there, and he’s fresh, and he has tried his hardest to find the open man, then take the shot. But we have all seen just how dangerous he is driving to the hole and dishing off to the open man for a wide-open shot. He should have done that at the end of Game 5 instead of taking that desperation three-pointer when David Wesley was wide open. I think that will be one of the biggest keys of all on Saturday night: T-Mac making the right decisions and having a fresh mind and body to make the right play at the right time.