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Season ends on a sour note

May 7th, 2005
by John

After Thursday’s Game 6 victory for the Rockets forcing a Game 7 in Dallas, I thought I was fortunate enough to get a ticket to Saturday’s game in Dallas. I knew there was a big risk of being disappointed if the Rockets lost, but I thought it was worth the drive to Dallas to perhaps witness history.

Yao throws one down in Dallas on his way to scoring 33 points, but other than T-Mac, none of the other Rockets showed up. Dallas ended Houston's season with a Game 7 victory, winning 116-76. Click here for more photos from the game.Yao throws one down in Dallas on his way to scoring 33 points, but other than T-Mac, none of the other Rockets showed up. Dallas ended Houston’s season with a Game 7 victory, winning 116-76. Click here for more photos from the game.

I sure witnessed history, alright. The worst Game 7 loss in NBA playoff history.

Actually, if I really think about it, I’m glad I was there as the Rockets collapsed to the Mavericks 116-76. I will never forget what it was like. Although it has to be much worse going through a loss like this one as a Rocket player, I feel I experienced a little of what they were going through as their season slipped away, and it will make me appreciate it when the Rockets kick Dallas’ butt next year in the playoffs.

At least this game didn’t come down to a controversial call like Game 5 when referee Bennett Salvatore went blind and allowed Michael Finley to steal the ball from Jon Barry while both of Finley’s feet were out of bounds. The Rockets were trailing by only three points during that key play that occurred with less than a minute remaining in the game, and they were rolling offensively. If Houston had won that game, there might not have been a Game 7, and Houston would be in Phoenix right now preparing for Game 1 of the next series. Thanks a lot, Bennett the Bum.

Although the Rockets’ collapse occurred on the road, I don’t believe the crowd at American Airlines Center was any different than what the Rockets had experienced these entire playoffs. Sure, they were loud. But I’ve head other arenas get just as loud. They just happened to be witnesses to a shellacking, not the cause of it.

The difference in this game was that the Rockets hoped their “experience” would be able to overcome a quicker, younger, and better financed team of All-Star caliber players that owner Mark “Steinbrenner” Cuban has assembled with almost reckless financial abandon. But when you have several billion dollars in the bank, you can afford to go out and sign or trade for top-notch players like Jerry Stackhouse and Jason Terry. The Mavericks have the second highest payroll in the league at $91 million, second only to the outlandish New York Knicks. Most owners in the league don’t have that kind of financial luxury. The Rockets have the fourteenth highest payroll at $58 million. Do the math, and you’ll see who will win most playoff series.

Yes, the Mavericks have more talent, and they should have more with Cuban’s pocketbook. The Rockets believed they had a chance to go far in the playoffs with role players who were seasoned (a.k.a. “old”), who could step up for the big games, and who wouldn’t crack under pressure. If the Rockets were going to win a championship this year, at some point in the playoffs they would have to prove they could win a big game like this one by showing they can play with smarts and savvy. I believed them, but I guess I was wrong.

All those hopes and theories flew out the window as the Mavericks exposed their lack of speed and athleticism, scoring at will the entire game and turning what many Rocket observers thought was a very successful season into one where no one is safe on the roster except Yao, T-Mac, and maybe Mike James.

What a difference a game makes. After the Game 6 victory, we thought they had their swagger and confidence back.

Other than T-Mac and Yao, pathetic performances were turned in by everyone, including James (4 points), Bob Sura (0 points, 0-for-2 shooting), David Wesley (7 points, 2-for-9), Scott Padgett (3 points, 1-for-6), Jon Barry (2 points, 1-for-6), and Ryan Bowen (0 points, 0-for-2). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a box score that ugly this entire season. Nice way to step up for the biggest game of the season.

So maybe we should forget about the theory of bringing in experienced players, UNLESS they have won championships for other teams. Guys like Robert Horry might have qualified as a player worth acquiring before San Antonio picked him up, and who is now flourishing as the Spurs head for another title. From what I remember, Horry wanted to come back to Houston, but we passed on him. Forgive me for digressing.

Nothing against Sura, Wesley, and Barry, who the I think the Rockets were lucky to sign this season to fill voids the Rockets felt they had to fill. They did a pretty good job this season. But if the Rockets are going to get past the Dallas’ and the Phoenix’s of the world, two teams with young and athletic players, the Rockets are going to have to do a complete re-evaluation of their roster. We’ll see what happens this off-season.

More about the game:

I guess I should go into more details about the game for those of you who may have missed it. I’m sure most of you saw the game, so I’ll just touch on the main points.

First quarter:

Dallas’ Josh Howard took it to the hole early and the Rockets couldn’t stop him, scoring 6 of the Mavericks’ first 14 points, forcing Houston’s first timeout with 6:14 remaining and putting the Rockets in a 14-6 hole.

Houston had to call its second timeout of the quarter at the 2:43 mark after Michael Finley hit two three-pointers in a row to put the Mavericks up 22-14, and Bob Sura threw up an air ball.

The Mavericks really created some distance by going on an 8-2 run to go up 32-20 by the end of the quarter, and it never got any closer the rest of the way.

For Houston being such a great team defensively, giving up 32 points in one quarter was not going to cut it. Neither was Houston’ 32% shooting from the floor, or getting beat on the boards 16-9. And giving up 4-of-5 three-pointers was pathetic. Oh yeah, how about 7 fouls to Dallas’ zero? The only thing they did well defensively was blocking four shots.

Finley had 9 points on 3-of-4 shooting, and T-Mac was 3-of-9 for 7 points. Wesley scored 6 points, and he would go on to score one more point the rest of the way. I’m sorry, but your starting shooting guard cannot get away with measly numbers like that. Not in this league. These kinds of numbers have not been unusual for Wesley recently.

Second quarter:

The Mavericks went on an 11-2 run to start the pivotal second quarter. Yao dropped a pass from T-Mac, and Jason Terry hit a three-pointer. Then after Yao scored in the lane, Darrell Armstrong scored on a layup to make it Dallas 37, Rockets 22. Then Yao picked up his second foul, and had to check out of the game.

That’s when Dikembe Mutombo checked into the game, and that’s when I was hoping the Rockets defense could finally start making a difference with Deke’s defensive presence in the lane.

It didn’t make a difference. Terry hit a floater in the lane, then scored on a jumper to push it t 41-22. That’s when the Rockets called timeout again. By that time, I knew the odds were low the Rockets could come back unless a miracle was in store.

With the Mavericks leading 45-25, in one sequence the Rockets must have missed 4 shots around the basket, typifying their ineptitude on offense this particular evening.

Dallas extended the lead to 57-33 on another Josh Howard layup, and by that time everyone knew no controversial calls like the one experienced in Game 5 that stole the game from the Rockets could save them.

The Rockets finally started to get it together by going on an 11-2 run to end the second quarter, closing it to 59-44 by halftime.

Still, the statistics weren’t pretty. Dallas was still shooting 50% thanks to too many easy layups, compared to Houston’s 41%. Houston had 16 more fouls to Dallas’ nine. As a result, Dallas shot 15 free throws (making 13) to Houston’s seven (making 6). Dallas had 12 points off turnovers to Houston’s four, and had a 12-2 advantage in second-chance points. From behind the arc, the Mavericks made 6-of-9 compared to Houston’s 2-of-10. And they had 4 steals to Houston’s one.

Terry kept killing the Rockets as he had done all series long, scoring 15 points on 4-of-6 shooting and making 5-of-5 free throws. He had 21 points by halftime. Completely unacceptable. What was acceptable was Dirk Nowitzki’s 1-for-7 shooting for six points.

Third quarter:

If the Rockets were ever going to get into the game, this was the quarter where they had to do it. They picked up momentum at the end of the second and were “only” down 15 points at the start of the third quarter.

Yao was able to cut it 59-46 with a dunk, and finally the Rockets felt they had some momentum. The deficit was still 13 points when T-Mac missed a three-pointer, then Yao was able to block a shot down low, but Erick Dampier scored on a follow-up shot. So it was Mavericks 63, Rockets 48. Not too much room for error remained. The ensuing possessions were going to be huge.

That’s when Padgett blocked a shot by Terry, but on a controversial call, the refs called a foul on Padgett, putting Terry on the line. Terry made both free throws, making it 65-48, Dallas.

What did Houston do to respond? Wesley threw a pass over Padgett’s head for a turnover. Dampier followed with a baseline jumper, making it 67-48. Uh-oh. 19 points is getting a bit too large for any team to overcome.

Padgett hit a three-pointer to make it 67-51. The Rockets traded baskets, but then T-Mac shot an air ball, and Wesley blew a relatively easy layup.

That’s when Josh Howard drove to the hole and was fouled by Yao with 6:31 remaining in the third, with Howard falling to the floor. I was absolutely shocked when I saw Yao extend his arm to Howard to help him off the floor. Thank God T-Mac slapped some sense into Yao by grabbing him by the jersey and pulling him away from Howard.

I’m sure TNT probably replayed this episode over and over (I don’t know because I haven’t seen the coverage yet), but it told us a lot about what Yao has to learn about playing in the NBA. It was just one game prior in Game 6 where Howard leveled Yao and stared him down. Can’t Yao remember that kind of thing? This is the heat of battle. You don’t help your opponent off the floor, especially if you are trailing big-time.

Things kept going downhill from there. By 2:28 remaining in the third quarter, the Rockets had to call timeout down by 26 points, 84-58. I looked at the scoreboard and it was disheartening: James had four points and Sura had zero, zilch, nada. I think Bob’s 35-year old body may be wearing out. He’s a gamer and a tough guy and I appreciate everything he has sacrificed for this team, but against quick guards he was a liability.

One of the most memorable plays of the game occurred with 31.2 seconds remaining in the quarter, and it wasn’t because it was good. Down 86-62, Mike James had a breakaway layup and was clearly fouled on the wrist as he put the shot off the glass. Having enough of the referees’ blindness, James complained loudly after Jason Terry was fouled on the ensuing play, and James picked up a technical, then another one, and was ejected. Terry went on to hit two free throws for the technical fouls, and hit two more free throws for being fouled in the act of shooting, and suddenly the Mavericks were up 90-62.

I wasn’t too mad at James for picking up those technicals and being ejected. The game was over by then, and I think someone on the Rockets needed to get in the refs’ faces and make a statement they were tired of their crap. So in my book, you’re alright Mike. I look forward to having you as the Rockets starting point guard next year, barring some unforeseen trade we just can’t refuse.

By the end of the quarter, the game (and the season) was over. The Rockets were being out-rebounded 37-24, were shooting only 40% compared to Dallas’ 51%, were trailing in fast break points 15-3, and the bench only had scored four points to Dallas’ 15.

The only bright spot of the quarter was Yao scoring on lots of dunks from great assists by T-Mac and others. He scored 9 points on 4-of-6 shooting, and the Mavericks couldn’t stop him. ClubYao writer Chia-Chi had a great observation after the game by writing to me, “It is ridiculous that in many stretches of games during the regular season they had no confidence in Yao at all and now all of a sudden in the playoffs they look to create plays for him and he scores 30 points every other game and shoots something like 65% from the field. They need to do this every game.” Well said, Chia-Chi.

Fourth quarter:

I won’t even go into detail in the fourth quarter because the game was already over. I just sat there and wanted to see how much pride the Rockets would display in trying to cut into the 92-64 lead. It’s ironic that in a season where the Rockets never gave up, they packed it in and suffered a 40-point loss.

Poor Yao was put out there by himself without T-Mac, who Van Gundy put on the bench. Yao had to fend for himself with the defense collapsing on him, and he only hit 2-of-8 from the field, but did make 5-of-6 free throws. Yao would finish with a game high 33 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks.

The Rockets went on to lose 116-76, and it’s not even worth pointing out any stats because it was garbage time the entire fourth quarter.

By the end, you couldn’t help but look at the box score and see those awful numbers I cited earlier for Sura, Wesley, Barry, and James.

I also couldn’t help but notice four minutes played by shot blocker extraordinaire Dikembe Mutombo. Was Van Gundy out-coached by not playing Mutombo when the Mavericks were penetrating to the basket and scoring at will in the first half?

Final thoughts:

So we head into next season with the comfort that Yao didn’t end the playoffs with a terrible night statistically. After he played poorly in Game 6 and missed all kinds of free throws in Game 5, it’s nice to see he redeemed himself somewhat. Any kind of confidence Yao can have headed into the off-season is extremely important for his psyche.

I don’t care what he has to say to the Chinese Basketball Association or whoever, but for God’s sake, LET THE GUY HAVE SOME REST! He will do China proud if he can come back next season without being so tired!

I wonder how differently this series would have turned out if Juwan Howard hadn’t fallen ill with the virus in his heart. As Chia-Chi mentioned to me, they really could have used his rebounding in this series. And of course, we also could have used all the scoring we could get in this series. It also would have been nice to see him haunt his former team in this series.

I’m sorry, but what makes me even sicker than seeing the Rockets lose like this is seeing Maverick owner Mark Cuban being able to come on to the court during timeouts and chest thump his players. There is something wrong with that. Can’t a league rule be instituted that only allows coaches and players be allowed on the court? I love the job he did on American Airlines Center, one of the top arenas in the league in my opinion. But I can’t stand his grandstanding. Stay in the stands, Cuban.

Now with the season over, I plan to keep writing occasionally during the off-season. Most notably, I will be covering the rumors of players that might be coming to the Rockets. The one rumor I’ll really be watching is if Jason Kidd’s reported interest in becoming a Rocket might become true. If necessary, I would trade combination of players (except Yao and T-Mac) to get him.

After covering and watching almost every game this season with the very valuable help of Chia-Chi, I am looking forward to getting some rest this off-season. Covering Yao and the Rockets is almost a full-time job, and my health has probably been sacrificed working on ClubYao (for no financial consideration) as well as working a full-time job. But I have enjoyed it. I now look forward to getting caught up on about 6 months of exercise I have missed since the season began and getting refreshed covering an exciting off-season for the Rockets (hopefully).


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