The Rockets game against the Clippers Wednesday night was one of the more entertaining games of the season, a 92-87 victory for Houston. But I admit it: if Houston had lost, you would hear me moaning and complaining, and I would NOT be saying it was entertaining.
There were lots of runs by both teams to keep it close whenever you thought one of the teams was going to pull away. Even though he finished shooting below 50% for the game (12-of-30), Tracy McGrady was fantastic, having his way whenever Cuttino Mobley tried to guard him.
In the first quarter alone, T-Mac must have taken Cuttino to the hole 4 different times and scored on him each time. As T-Mac would say, “my man was at my mercy.” He just blew by him, and continued to do it. And Mobley is a pretty good defender. Just goes to show how dominant T-Mac can be.
Houston got off to a hot start in that first quarter by taking a 17-9 lead, with T-Mac scoring 8 of those points. But then the Clippers went on a 20-4 run to hold a 29-21 lead after the first quarter.
Then early in the second quarter, Yao picked up his third foul. But like in a recent game where Yao was burdened by foul trouble early, he stayed in the game and made the most of it. He even got more aggressive offensively and scored the Rockets’ next 8 points by hitting a hook shot, throwing down a dunk, hitting a jump shot, and making two free throws.
That stretch by Yao kept the game from getting away and made it 33-31, Clippers. The jump shot he hit in the middle of that run was a thing of beauty. He did his favorite spin move to the baseline on Chris Kaman, but then stopped his dribble (creating space on Kaman since Yao’s defenders are accustomed to following Yao to the basket), faded away to make the shot unblockable, and drained it. I hadn’t seen that move before from Yao. I guess Yao knows everyone is watching videotape of him on that spin move and is throwing in a new wrinkle to get himself an easier shot.
The Rockets then hit a dry spell and missed 12 of their last 15 shots of the first half, and were lucky to only be down 49-42. One of the reasons was because the normally reliable Juwan Howard was missing easy layups and jump shots and was 0-for-6 by halftime. Ouch.
But in the third quarter, the Rockets came out with a vengeance and went on an 8-0 run. Chuck Hayes, who thankfully did not have to sit out the game because of a shoulder injury he suffered in the previous game, was impressive. He got easy layups off great assists from T-Mac (I love that combination!) Hayes finished with 10 points and 9 rebounds and gave the Clippers fits all night long.
The Clippers then went on a 10-2 run, but Houston came back and went on an 18-2 run themselves, thanks to T-Mac taking Mobley to the rack again several times. During that run T-Mac scored 8 points, and Yao chipped in 6. By the time the third quarter was over, the Rockets had outscored the Clippers 28-12, and led 70-61 heading into the fourth quarter.
The odds were in Houston’s favor. Anytime this season the Rockets held a lead heading into the fourth quarter on the road, they were 19-3 in those games, and 44-6 overall.
But it wasn’t easy. The Clippers went on another run and tied the game on a Tim Thomas 3-pointer right after Elton Brand had blocked Yao’s fadeaway jumper from the free throw line. And this was the second time in the game he had done it! Brand is a great shot blocker, but Yao needs to get higher elevation when he his shooting that shot. I think Yao is so used to not getting that shot blocked, he is relaxing a little too much on it Whenever Yao gets blocked like that, it really fires up the opposing team’s crowd. It’s almost as good as a slam dunk for the other team.
That’s when the unlikeliest of heroes made a difference. John Lucas III came in and scored on a variety of shots in the lane, plus a three-pointer, and gave the Rockets some offense when they needed it. In just the 4 minutes he played in the fourth, he was 3-for-3 from the field with 7 points. Now THAT’S the John Lucas I saw dominate at last summer’s Vegas Summer League. Give Van Gundy credit for inserting him into the lineup when the Rockets needed him.
Down the stretch, there were huge plays for the Rockets to seal it. Yao followed up a missed layup by T-Mac to throw it down…hard. Shane Battier hit a three-pointer to put Houston ahead 88-87 with 53 seconds remaining after a great pass by T-Mac found him wide open in the corner. And Yao grabbed three huge rebounds in a row after Clipper misses.
By the end of the game, Yao finished with 24 points, had made all 8 of his free throws, and grabbed 15 rebounds. T-Mac finished with 27 points on 12-of-30 shooting (surprising his shooting percentage wasn’t higher considering all the great plays he had), 8 assists and 5 rebounds. Rafer Alston was 1-for-8 from three-point land (maybe that’s why Van Gundy put Lucas into the lineup in the fourth), but still finished with 14 points on 4-of-13 shooting and 9 assists.
Now the Rockets stay in LA (a rarity) and play the Lakers Friday night. That should be an interesting game since Kobe Bryant cooled off against the Memphis Grizzlies, and they lost to the team with the worst record in the NBA. You can bet that he and his teammates will be highly motivated to atone for that performance on national TV. It could be a rough night for the Rockets’ defense that typically has trouble against guys who can penetrate into the lane and score (i.e., Chris Paul, Steve Nash). Although Kobe isn’t a point guard, he can handle the ball like one.