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Rockets bench comes up big against Spurs

December 22nd, 2006
by John
Yao shoots one of his unstoppable fallaway jumpers against Tim Duncan Friday night in a suprising victory over San Antonio 97-78, snapping a 17-game losing streak in the Alamo City.  Yao got into foul trouble and scored 'only' 22 points, but the rest of the team stepped up and played one of their most impressive games of the season.Yao shoots one of his unstoppable fallaway jumpers against Tim Duncan Friday night in a suprising victory over San Antonio 97-78, snapping a 17-game losing streak in the Alamo City. Yao got into foul trouble and scored ‘only’ 22 points, but the rest of the team stepped up and played one of their most impressive games of the season. Click here for more photos.

All the odds were against the Rockets heading into Friday’s game against the Spurs in San Antonio. After all, the Rockets had lost 4 of 5 games, they had been on the road 10 straight days, T-Mac was still out because of injury, and Houston’s bench hadn’t been doing anything lately.

On top of that, they hadn’t won in San Antonio in over 9 years, having lost 17 in a row there, and San Antonio has been playing very well lately in winning 9 of their last 10 and holding the league’s best record. (20-6)

But the Rockets put all that behind them and shocked me and the rest of the world by playing one of their best games of the season, winning convincingly 97-78. Give them credit for bouncing back after a tough loss against Portland Wednesday night.

Yao got into foul trouble that limited him from dominating the boxscore (“just” 22 points and 7 rebounds). But everyone else pulled their weight, and then some.

Yao did start the game off strong, scoring 10 of the Rockets first 12 points (14 points in the first quarter) thanks to a couple of nice assists from Rafer Alston passing over the top to Yao while he was being fronted defensively. Luther Head also had a nice dish by penetrating to the basket along the baseline, then whipping a pass to Yao for a layup. Not a bad way to start.

Chuck Hayes also ‘exploded’ offensively in the first, scoring 6 points on 2-of-2 shooting, with one of those buckets coming from a nice hustle tip-in after crashing the boards. He also hit 2-of-2 free throws, even with that strange hitch in his shooting form. You knew the Rockets were destined for a good night after seeing him sink both of those!

Bonzi Wells also hit 2-of-2 shots in the first, thanks to a sweet pass from Juwan Howard for a layup. Overall, the Rockets did a fantastic job moving the ball around to get great looks, hitting 12-of-22 shots for a 30-21 lead after the first quarter.

In the second quarter, Yao cooled off and only hit 1-of-5 shots, but the Rockets got a great contribution from one of my favorite underdogs, John Lucas III. I was pleasantly surprised Van Gundy put him into the game so early since he had played only 6 minutes in the past four games.

In the course of one minute of action, Lucas scored by finishing nicely on two fast breaks. I always get skeptical when the Rockets are running on a fast break, because other than T-Mac, they really don’t have someone you can count on who can jet down the floor and finish reliably with a defender or two in the way. But Lucas has an uncanny ability to get a good angle on the rim during fast breaka, elevate over other guys and lay balls in (as he showed on thes fast breaks), which is incredible since I have stood next to him and he’s no taller than 5’10” (listed as 5′ 11″).

Lucas is fearless going to the hole, and is quick and can create his own shot like when he hit a sweet stop-and-pop jumper a couple of minutes later. His quickness reminds me a little of Tony Parker, and Van Gundy may have wanted to fight Parker’s quickness with Lucas’. It can’t hurt to fight fire with fire. Lucas finished the game with 9 points in 13 minutes on 4-of-6 shooting, including a big three-pointer in the fourth quarter.

All I have to say is this: keep playing John Lucas! He showed what he could do in Vegas, and his situation reminds me a little bit of Mike James when James, a virtual no-name when he came to the Rockets, made a name for himself offensively after coming to Houston.

Bonzi also showed he can play and is quickly getting into shape by hitting 3-of-5 shots in the second quarter, including a drive to the basket that caught the Spurs surprised. Later in the quarter he also scored on a fast break. Bonzi brings an element to the game the Rockets have sorely lacked since T-Mac’s back fired up again – the ability to create his own shot.

I have also been impressed with Bonzi’s willingness to make a pass when he is faced with a low-percentage shot. He passed the ball a couple of times to other players when his shot wasn’t as high percentage as an open teammate’s. Thank God Van Gundy wasn’t too stubborn several weeks ago when he was having his differences with Bonzi and kept the door open for him to return, especially after T-Mac got hurt. That move (or non-move) could have been the best break of the year for the Rockets.

By halftime, the Rockets had shockingly hit 55% of their shots and led 53-36. Yao had 18 points and 4 boards, and the Rockets offense held a 21-12 rebound advantage, holding the Spurs to zero offensive boards.

Since the Spurs’ Francisco Elson and Fabricio Oberto were having a hard time containing Yao, Tim Duncan had to help out in defending Yao. The effort required to defend Yao must have limited Duncan’s offensive effectiveness since he only scored 14 points on 4-of-13 shooting. But you also have to give credit to Juwan Howard (along with Yao and Chuck Hayes) for playing great D against him.

Juwan also was extremely valuable offensively, hitting several long jumpers as the Spurs’ defense packed it in low and left him open, allowing him to score 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting. He also chipped in 4-of-5 free throws. Give the guy credit for still be very productive in his 13th year. He was needed this night since Yao picked up his 4th foul about midway through the 3rd quarter.

In the fourth quarter, the Spurs threatened a couple of times after Yao had to sit after picking up his fifth foul with 7:53 remaining in the game. Manu Ginobili kept the Spurs within striking distance by hitting two three-pointers in the fourth quarter (4-of-6 overall), but Luther squashed a rally when he created his own shot and hit a jumper to make it 81-65 with 7:23 remaining. A couple of minutes later, Alston hit a three-pointer to make it 86-68, then put the game out of reach with about 4 minutes remaining when he hit a Parker-like floater in the lane.

In sum, there were several reasons why the Rockets enjoyed success against the Spurs to snap their losing streak in San Antonio:

1) they got off to a fast start
2) they moved the ball extremely well. Luther Head had a career-high 11 assists.
3) everyone stepped up and hit shots (51% shooting overall), including the much maligned bench (15-of-26).
4) their defense held San Antonio to their lowest scoring second quarter (15 points) first half (36) and final score for the season (78). The Rockets’ defense will always keep them in games.
5) they have a few new weapons the Spurs aren’t accustomed to seeing. In addition to having to defend Yao, they have to account for Bonzi, Lucas, a much improved Alston (compared to last year), and a great shooting Juwan.

I loved seeing the reaction by Yao and his teammates at the end of the game, with lots of high-fives and attempted chest bumps between Yao and Juwan that failed to connect cleanly, creating lots of laughs. But on a night where everything else was clicking, those missed attempts were easy to overlook.


Click here for the Houston Chronicle’s game story.

Click here for the boxscore.