WEDNESDAY, 2/1/06 – Okay, this is more like it. It wasn’t perfect, but the Rockets reminded everyone what they can do when they have their “Big Two” of Yao and T-Mac together.
Yao showed just how much the Rockets missed his presence during those 21 games he was out of action. On a night when T-Mac didn’t have that great of a game (6-of-19 for 22 points) based on his very high standards, Yao delivered big-time in only his second game back from toe surgery, scoring 21 points (8-of-18 shooting) and grabbing 13 boards to pace the Rockets to an 86-84 victory over Milwaukee.
Before I go further, let’s throw out the fourth quarter where the Rockets only scored 9 points. I’ll talk about that in a minute.
The Rockets got off to a quick start at the beginning of the game, taking a 6-0 lead. But then their shooting went south, and the Bucks went on a 24-5 run and held a commanding 27-15 at the end of the first quarter. I couldn’t help but think, “Here we go again.”
At the start of the second quarter, Chuck Hayes checked in and ignited Houston’s sluggish offense. In his first 3 minutes, he grabbed four rebounds, tipped in a garbage basket, blocked a shot and then hustled down court immediately after the block and was rewarded with an alley-oop, fast break pass from Rafer Alston for a beautiful bucket.
Hayes’ impact on the Rockets has been nothing short of remarkable. Before signing with the Rockets two weeks ago, he was in Albuquerque with their NBDL team. Hayes started showing glimpses of what he can do on the big stage on January 20th. In only his second NBA game, he scored 12 points and grabbed 13 boards against Chicago.
Hayes impact on this game was completely obvious. Beyond grabbing 8 boards and scoring 8 points in just 13 minutes, he jump-started the Rockets’ tempo both on offense and defense, and just as important, the Toyota Center crowd’s enthusiasm level.
Yao checked back into the game shortly thereafter, and it was vintage Yao. He hit fallaway jumpers, grabbed rebounds, and dished a sweet dish over a defender’s head to Ryan Bowen for a layup to cap a 13-2 run that cut their deficit to 29-26. When Hayes scored on a nifty baseline reverse layup, Houston took the lead for good, 30-29.
A little over a minute later, Yao made his patented spin move on the baseline around rookie Andrew Bogut and threw down a vicious two-handed dunk, with a little roar and snare to go with it! Man, we’ve missed that, Yao. Welcome back. Having you in the lineup makes such a difference. Not a knock against any of your teammates, but you just add another dimension to the offense that Juwan Howard and Dikembe Mutombo cannot offer.
He wasn’t done, though. Thirty-two seconds later, he hit a fallaway jumper to make it 35-30. Less than a minute later, he backed down his defender on the block. Unlike other occasions where defenders would ‘pull the chair’ from behind Yao to make him lose his balance and force him to throw up a wild shot as he fell to the floor, it looked like this time Yao saw that he had an open lane to the basket without needing to bother making a spin move, or fadeaway jumper. Instead, he just backed up, looked up behind him, saw the basket, and as he was falling to the floor, laid it in without ever needing to turn toward the basket! Only someone 7’6” with good touch could try scoring on a play like that one!
That unlikely basket made the score 37-30. Chuck Hayes’ energy and Yao’s 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the second quarter was pivotal to giving Houston an unusual 49-41 lead at halftime.
The Rockets maintained a double-digit lead most of the third quarter, thanks to T-Mac getting back on track offensively after only making 1-of-6 shots in the first half. McGrady scored 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting in the third to provide Yao some relief and to create that “one-two” punch the Rockets have been waiting for most of this season. But Yao didn’t disappear. He made 3-of-4 shots in the third quarter to score 6.
Heading into the fourth quarter, the Rockets led 77-66. The question was if Houston could muster some killer instinct and cruise to an easy victory.
That final quarter was ugly, and represented the problem they have had all season: the inability to score. Yao missed all three of his shots (maybe blame it on fatigue from his 21-game absence), and T-Mac went 1-for-6 again (maybe because his back wasn’t feeling great). Rafer Alston was 1-of-4, but he hit a big runner in the lane with 2:45 remaining to make it 86-81.
On the ensuing possession, Jamaal Magliore had a sure-fire dunk that could have made it 86-83, but Yao came up with a HUGE defensive play by blocking Magliore’s shot at the rim. Man, I’ve missed that too, Yao.
The rest of the way, both teams missed lots of shots. Houston’s defense clamped down and forced the Bucks to miss 14-of-21 shots in the fourth quarter, including a missed three-pointer by Bobby Simmons with a few seconds remaining that could have won it.
Finally the Rockets’ bad luck of losing games every possible way has ended, at least for now. Couple Simmons’ missed shot with the fact that Milwaukee’s leading scorer, Michael Redd, was out because of back spasms, and the Rockets only need about 13 games like this one to even out their bad luck this season along with their shocking 16-29 record.
To see the boxscore from the game, click here.
To read the Houston Chronicle’s article about the game, click here.