The Rockets-Hornets game Sunday night tapped my emotions from the highest high to the lowest low.
In the first quarter the Rockets were that well-oiled offensive machine we have grown accustomed to seeing lately in the first quarter of games.
As a team they made their first 7 shots. Yao started off 4-for-4 from the field. T-Mac hit his first five. The Rockets moved the ball around for open shots, resulting in 12-of-21 shooting and a 10-point lead at the end of the first quarter, 30-20.
Good job. The Rockets we’re on their way to finally getting the Hornet “monkey” off their back, a team they hadn’t beaten this season in two previous match-ups, and hadn’t beaten in 4-of-5 attempts the past two seasons.
This was the new Rockets we were watching. That underachieving bunch of the past was the old Houston. This was going to be another “statement game,” one of several they have had this season that seemingly holds so much promise in the playoffs.
But then it all came tumbling down. The Rockets fell into some old patterns and folded like a tent, losing 106-94. Yao’s shot inexplicably left him, and he ended up missing 15 of his last 18 shots. That’s unheard of. I can’t believe it. Yao scored only 16 points on 7-of-22 shooting, grabbed only 7 boards, and had 1 block. Meanwhile, his opponent Tyson Chandler scored 14 points, but only needed 11 shots to do it (he made 6), and he grabbed 10 boards and blocked 3 shots.
Part of the reason Yao was having a hard time was because the refs kept calling fouls against him, but no fouls against his defenders who hacked away without fear of a whistle blowing. Yao only went to the line an unbelievably low TWO TIMES! What the hell is going on? In the 10 games since his return from his leg injury, he has averaged going to the line 8.2 times. RONNIE NUNN — WHERE ARE YOU?
But this game wasn’t all about bad officiating. A big reason for the Rockets’ downturn is because it’s tough for the Rockets to win when only one player makes decent shooting numbers, like T-Mac did (31 points on 12-of-20 FGs) in this game, and no one else does.
That’s not Yao’s fault. This team has been constructed by Jeff Van Gundy such that if Yao has an off night, they are probably going to lose. I like all the responsibility that has been thrown Yao’s way, but relying too much on Rafer Alston or Shane Battier (as much as I treasure Shane) when Yao is struggling isn’t going to cut it. That’s why I thought the Rockets brought in Bonzi Wells, who I now understand JVG probably won’t play unless they are struggling in the playoffs. Don’t you think that will be a little too late by then, JVG? How about playing Bonzi right now so he’ll be prepared and in shape for the playoffs?
The Rockets blew their 10-point lead after the first quarter like you would expect a mentally weak team to do against an inferior opponent that has a 31-38 record. The Rockets made only 8-of-21 shots in the second quarter, but they still had a 52-44 at halftime.
At the time I was thinking, “Okay, let’s stop messing around and blow this game open in the third quarter and go home with a W against these pests.”
What occurred instead has me extremely concerned about the Rockets’ chances in the playoffs. Yao’s game went south. The Rockets were out-hustled. Their 3-point shot that they rely on so much to win games was an abysmal 1-for-7 in the third. And they were outscored by 10 points in the third to trail heading into the fourth quarter.
Then in the fourth quarter, the Rockets couldn’t stop Hornet point guard Chris Paul, who got into the lane easily by taking Rafer Alston to school, and made 4-of-4 shots and scored 12 to finish with 28 points. When they needed a stop in order to stay in the game, they couldn’t come up with one, letting the Hornets score on easy shots or tap-ins around the rim. The Hornets pulled away with their second consecutive 31-point quarter as Houston sucked from the field, hitting only 8-of-22 shots.
So I believe when it comes time to play Utah in the playoffs, it’s going to come down to Jazz point guard Deron Williams doing the same thing to the Rockets that Chris Paul and Steve Nash do to the Rockets.
I predict the only way the Rockets will win that series is if they control Williams (doesn’t look possible based on what we saw against the Hornets and Paul), Yao and T-Mac don’t have off nights (one of them is bound to have a bad night each game), and the Rockets hit close to 40% of their 3-pointers, which doesn’t look possible every game based on what we saw Sunday night in Oklahoma City (10-of-28).
All of this is going to require too much to go right. I think the Rockets will bounce back and take care of business against Milwaukee in a back-to-back game to be played in Houston Monday night. But from what I saw Sunday night against the Hornets, it won’t matter much.
I predict the Jazz will win their first round playoff series in 6 or 7 games…unless the Rockets somehow start kicking ass now, ask questions later, and dominate the rest of their regular season’s games and make this game a distant memory.
One way to do that is to have the same mentality Yao had after Tyson Chandler showed up Yao in a game 10 years ago when they were both teenagers. Check out this story on how Yao got payback against Chandler in that game.