FRIDAY, 3/31/06 – With nothing really to play for except pride, the Rockets and Yao put on a show against the 37-33 Washington Wizards Friday night, perhaps showing the Rockets blowout win of the Sonics Wednesday night was not a fluke.
Even though the game didn’t mean much since the playoffs are out of reach, I was more entertained with this game more than almost any other game this season. Houston fans seemed to get into this game more than expected, getting rowdy many times to urge the Rockets to a moral victory. The Rockets led for most of the game, shot a season high 55.7% from the field, and held on to win for a 105-103 triumph.
I have been surprised at how much better the Rockets are playing all of a sudden offensively. With no T-Mac, what has gotten into them lately?
The Rockets exploded with 62 points by halftime (they scored 64 against Seattle on Wednesday), shooting 58% from the field and hitting 5-of-9 from three-point land. Yao, Luther Head and Rafer Alston were all in double-figures by halftime.
Yao had 20 points by halftime with incredible shooting consistency (7-of-11 from the field, 6-of-6 from the line). That wonderful shooting touch we knew he had before coming into the NBA is really shining through now.
It didn’t hurt that the Wizards were without center Brendan Haywood, and weren’t double-teaming Yao since Luther Head’s outside shooting kept them honest from collapsing on Yao inside.
Luther was outstanding in the first half, scoring 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting. It looks like all of the playing time he has had this season is really paying off. He is hitting from the outside and attacking the basket with much more confidence, it seems. I think he has a chance to really emerge as a force next season, similar to how Cuttino Mobley became an offensive threat his second season with the Rockets.
Rafer Alston was extremely effective, too, scoring 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting and dishing 6 assists.
The Rockets led 62-50 by halftime, but it seemed like the lead was much bigger considering much they were scoring. But being the third highest scoring team in the league, Washington is no slouch offensively, right behind Phoenix and Seattle.
Man. That’s saying something when Houston – second-to-last in points per game (90.7) outscores two of the top 3 offensive teams in the league in consecutive games!
In the second half, Yao kept it rolling, scoring at will with that feathery touch of his and hitting 8-of-14 shots to add 18 more to his scoring pile. He was simply unstoppable against the smaller front line of the Wizards.
When he checked out of the game for a rest, the Wizards whittled away a 15-point deficit by going on an 18-4 run, and closed within one point, 87-86, with 8:22 remaining.
With Yao back in the game, the Rockets went on an 11-2 run, with Yao scoring eight of those points to give them a comfortable 10-point lead with 4:20 remaining.
But the Wizards impressive offensive attack got them back into it, pulling them within 102-101 with 1:15 remaining in the game.
With every other Rocket suddenly struggling offensively, everyone knew that Yao – who had 36 points at the time — was going to get the ball on the next possession. It was just like the glory years when everyone in the building knew Hakeem Olajuwon would get the ball in the same situation.
And just like Olajuwon did many times, Yao got the ball on the left baseline, made a spin move toward the baseline, faded away, and with the utmost confidence like we have seen so much from him lately, he calmly flicked his wrist and swished it for a huge bucket to give the Rockets a 104-101 lead with 53.2 remaining! (The picture above shows Yao’s reaction seconds after hitting that clutch shot).
The Wizards had a chance to win it on a last-second 3-pointer, but unlike games earlier this season where those shots would fall against the Rockets, this time it clanged off the rim for a Houston victory.
By the time it was over, Yao had tied his season-high of 38 points (15-of-25 shooting), made 8-of-8 from the line, grabbed 11 boards, had 3 assists, blocked two shots, and had numerous alterations of Wizards’ shots.
You can’t get any more dominating than that, folks. Even Wizards’ coach Eddie Jordan acknowledged Yao’s incredible performance after the game:
“The big guy (Yao) earned his check and he put his team on his back and carried them. I’ve seen him do some good things, but with that soft touch, he is unbelievable. The guy is playing phenomenal.”
The only down side is that Yao had 7 turnovers, with a couple coming down the stretch that allowed Washington to get close near the end of the game. But considering how Yao has improved in so many facets of his game, reduction of turnovers is sure to happen over time, too.
Yao had plenty of help in this win, with Luther finishing with 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 3-of-4 from 3-point territory, and doling 7 assists.
Alston finished with 19 points and 8 assists, and was definitely a key contributor in this game. As effective as Alston has been lately, and as much as I want to give him tons of credit, I learned that Mike James had an even more amazing night: 36 points and 10 assists. Right when I want to “move on” and appreciate Alston for what he is now bringing to the team, that trade continues to haunt the Rockets and me.
If only we had that production from the backcourt earlier this season when T-Mac was out, we wouldn’t be counting down the end of the Rockets’ season.
To see the boxscore from the game, click here.
To read the Houston Chronicle’s article about the game, click here.