As expected, the Rockets took care of business Monday night against the poor, injury-plagued 25-43 Milwaukee Bucks to clinch a spot in the Western Conference playoffs. With Andrew Bogut, Charlie Villanueva, Dan Gadzuric, Bobby Simmons, and Mo Williams all out, the Rockets got off to a fast start with another 30+ point first quarter (33), led by 9 at halftime, extended it to 23 in the third quarter, and cruised to a 106-87 win.
Although the Rockets were playing the second game of a back-to-back and they were embarrassed (once again) the night before by the Hornets, it was impossible to fathom the idea the Rockets would lose this game. If they had lost, they would have serious problems at this stage of the season losing a game like this one.
Yao got off to a rough start, missing his first 5 shots, and he finished 9-of-22 from the field for 22 points. I’m a little concerned Yao has started to lose his shooting confidence lately as the Rockets head into the home stretch. As much as I would like to blame it on the splint on his middle and ring finger on his shooting hand (like Rocket broadcasters Matt Bullard and Bill Worrell did), Yao has had some great shooting games since having the splint applied on March 9th, like the following:
March 9th – 6-of-11
March 11th – 14-of-22
March 16th – 8-of-18
March 18th – 10-of-18
March 20th – 10-of-17
March 22nd – 10-of-19
Also, starting since March 9th when he started wearing the splint, he has shot 67-of-79 (84.8%) from the free throw line, which is very close to his season average of 85.8%.
It’s only his last two games where he has struggled from the field, making only 16-of-44 shots for 36% shooting. If I could ask Yao one question, it would be about the effect the splint was having on his shot. He mentioned after the Hornets game the problem was that he wasn’t able to get position down low, and he vowed to get better position against the Bucks. However, getting better position still didn’t help as he started the game 0-for-5.
It was interesting that Jeff Van Gundy left Yao in the game until the very end of the game when it was well in hand, probably so he could improve his conditioning and work the kinks out of his suddenly-gone-south shot.
Actually, Yao’s shot haven’t been that bad. After all, he made 9 out of his last 17 shots in the game, including a nice jump shot from the baseline and some nice hooks. My favorite shot (as pictured above) was when Brian Skinner flopped on Yao when Yao was making a strong move to the basket. Thankfully the ref didn’t fall for the flop, and Yao just proceeded to jump over him and throw it down for the dunk. Props to Yao for staying aggressive and not being tentative because of the refs’ propensity to blow the whistle on him just because he’s bigger than everyone else.
Beyond the shooting “woes,” Van Gundy said that Yao’s pick-and-roll defense and rebounding are the areas he has the most concern over (click here for a video of Van Gundy’s postgame news conference). In the locker room, both Yao and JVG acknowledge he still has work to do in getting back to the level of conditioning he had before injuring his leg.
I did like how Yao covered 5’5” Earl Boykins on one possession in the third quarter. The Rockets’ broadcast crew did a good job freezing a shot of Yao hulking over Boykins as the pint-sized point guard penetrated into the lane. It made the 30-year old Boykins look like he was 3. Hilarious.
T-Mac was solid in this game, matching Yao’s 22 points on 50% shooting (9-of-18) thanks to more drives to the rack for high percentage shots. He also dished 9 dimes and grabbed 5 boards. Rafer Alston made 5-of-11 shots and hit 3-of-8 treys, scoring 13. Luther Head also was pretty good, scoring 13 points thanks to 3-of-5 shooting from behind the arc. In other words, the Rockets had fairly balanced scoring, something they didn’t have the night before in Oklahoma City against the Hornets.
One of the main concerns I had coming out of this game was the injury of Chuck Hayes, who somehow strained his shoulder. I watched the replay several times defending man one-on-one, and I still can’t figure out how it happened. But Hayes’ hustle, rebounds, and 2-3 layups coming off T-Mac assists will be missed. Hopefully it’s temporary and he won’t be out long because the Rockets are already having to deal with Dikembe Mutombo‘s knee keeping him out the past few games.
Now the Rockets head to LA for some key games against the Clippers and Lakers. Personally, I can’t wait for the Friday matchup against a red-hot Kobe. Will they be able to contain the scoring machine after getting burned so recently by the Hornets’ Chris Paul on Sunday night? Doubtful.