Through 3 1/2 quarters Thursday night, it appeared the Rockets were on their way to having another “statement game” similar to the 50-point win they had Sunday night in Philadelphia.
This time, they held a big 18-point lead with only 8:18 remaining in the game against arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons had won their last 6 road games, and 6 out of their last 7 games overall. So they are for real in a fairly weak East.
And in this game they were playing with Chauncey Billups, who has been out with a groin injury lately. This game was on its way to being a bona fide dismantling of Detroit, and I could only imagine what journalists and teams in the League were thinking about Houston.
Maybe something like, “Man, look at Houston. They are kicking tail. They have won 7 of their last 8 games (on their way to 8 of 9), and they dominated a good Detroit team. Watch out for them in the playoffs. No doubt now: they are going to be the surprise team in the playoffs this year.”
Well, after blowing that 18-point lead and letting Detroit close within 4 points with 2:31 remaining in the game, many of those potential accolades went out the window somewhat. Houston would hold on for a 91-85 win, which is impressive, but not as impressive as it could have been.
But I don’t care much about how a team looks when they win as much as I do with their ability to win close games any way they can. Houston has been learning lately how to close out tight games (remember the Indiana game Tuesday night?), which is undoubtedly going to be a necessity to win in the playoffs.
And this time they beat a team that had owned them. The Rockets had lost six straight to Detroit, and 9 of their last 11 to them.
At first, it looked like the odds were against them. In the first minute and a half of the first quarter, Yao was called for a moving pick (questionable call), then for a defensive foul.
I thought for sure Jeff Van Gundy would pull him out of the game, but Yao told JVG that he was fine. And surprisingly, Van Gundy obliged and kept Yao in the game. Yao would reward his coach for believing in him, and on the next Rocket possession, Yao hit a beautiful baseline hook shot. That got him going, and Yao would reward JVG by hitting two more shots in the quarter to finish with 7 points on 3-of-3 shooting at the end of one.
But Yao wasn’t the only one who was rolling. T-Mac went through a one-minute stretch starting at the 9:15 mark of the first quarter where he threw a beautiful pass to Chuck Hayes for a layup, then went to the rack for a dunk, and then scored on a crazy no-look shot over his head for a layup! Beautiful!
By the time Yao hit his third consecutive shot of the quarter, the Rockets had gone on a 15-2 run to start the game.
But after Yao checked out of the first quarter about when he normally does — this time at the 4:30 mark — Detroit went on an 8-0 run to get back into it. Detroit finished the first quarter on a 13-4 run to close the gap to 20-15 at the end of the first quarter.
That’s when I thought the game was going to be a dogfight the rest of the way, but surprisingly, the Rockets built on their lead by outscoring the Pistons 28-20 in the second quarter.
The highlight play of the quarter occurred on a beautiful Rocket fast break at the 8:40 mark. Rafer Alston started the break, passed it down the court to Luther Head on the right wing. On the run, Luther quickly passed it to Yao who was running down the middle of the lane. But Yao then did a very smart thing. Rather than try to go up with a shot and risk being called for a charge, YAO WHIPPED A QUICK PASS TO JUWAN HOWARD, WHO WAS RUNNING DOWN THE LEFT SIDE OF THE COURT, AND JUWAN LAID IT IN AND WAS FOULED! WHEN IS THE LAST TIME YOU SAW A 7’6″ CENTER RUN THE BREAK AND THROW A QUICK PASS ON THE RUN LIKE THAT? THAT SENDS CHILLS DOWN MY SPINE.
Yao scored 9 more points in the second quarter to have 16 by halftime, and the Rockets were up 13 points, 48-35, heading into the locker room. Pretty impressive against Detroit. But I thought at the start of the third quarter, the former NBA champs would be on their way to making a run.
I was wrong. Houston built on their lead to go up by 18 at the end of the third. Yao started the third quarter hot as a pistol, making 3 out of his first four shots, including a turnaround jumper on the baseline from an angle BEHIND the backboard. T-Mac also made his first two shots of the quarter.
Right when you thought the Rockets were on their way to another “statement” victory and would cruise to an easy win, that’s when the Pistons made their move.
It was not a good fourth quarter for McGrady. He missed his first 3 shots, and fouled Antonio McDyess after a rebound with 3 minutes remaining when McDyess wasn’t even a threat to score with the Pistons were still within striking difference. What are you thinking, T-Mac? McDyess hit his two free throws to close the game to 86-79 with 3:01 remaining.
On the next Rockets’ possession, somehow McDyess got up high enough to block Yao’s fallaway jumper, and I couldn’t believe what I saw. That doesn’t happen very often, and it was a big block that gave the Pistons hope, now down only 88-83.
But on a night where he really struggled from his shooting, T-Mac would hit the biggest shot of the game when it counted the most — a long baseline jumper with 1:42 remaining that made it 90-83.
McDyess wouldn’t be denied, though. He came back and hit a 19-footer to close the gap to 90-85 with 54 seconds remaining.
That set the table for what would become the biggest play of the game. Down by 5 points, the Pistons were running a fast break with about 20 seconds remaining in the game, and Carlos Delfino decided not to pull up for a three-pointer, but instead go inside and try to get a layup, or at least get fouled.
Yao would have none of that. He decided to go after Delfino’s shot in the lane, AND HE SWATTED IT CLEANLY FOR A BIG BLOCK, and the Rockets got possession of the rock as well!!! Rafer Alston secured the loose ball, was fouled, and he hit 1-of-2 to put the game away, 91-85.
That capped off another amazing night for Yao: 27 points on 10-of-19 shots, 7-of-8 free throws made, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and that big block. He also did a great job not getting stripped of the ball, a problem lately, by only turning the ball over twice.
But after the game, Van Gundy still thought there was more that Yao could have done:
“Yao has done a good job. I think he needs to get a finishing mentality. He needs to be a killer when he has 20 to get 30, 30 to get 40, 40 to get 50 for us to do anything. You have to be able to go to him late. He has to be able to get good, clean looks off. It has to do with a hunger, a mentality to keep wanting to kick (butt.)”
Tracy McGrady continued to struggle from a shooting perspective — only 9-of-24 from the field for 20 points. But he did have 5 boards and 8 assists.
Chuck Hayes continued to be the beneficiary of some of those T-Mac dimes, scoring 8 points on 4-of-6 high-percentage shots around the rim. Hayes also had 9 boards.
Last but not least, Rafer Alston had a great night, scoring 16 points on 3-of-5 shooting from behind the arc. As Rafer goes, so goes the Rockets. He also had 6 boards, 6 assists, and only two turnovers.
The Rockets now have the league’s current longest winning streak at five, and go for their 6th win in a row on Sunday in New Orleans. More importantly, they trail the Utah Jazz by only one game to get home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.