When you play at Staples Center these days with the kind of scoring tear that Kobe Bryant has been on this month, you can’t expect to come out with a convincing victory – you just want to survive. You know Kobe is going to get his points. You don’t care how you win — just hold on for a wild ride and hope you can withstand #24’s offensive explosion.
That sums up what the Rockets did Friday night in a crazy game against the Lakers, holding on for a 107-104 victory in overtime
There were so many twists and turns in this game, I can’t possibly describe them all. Since the game was on ESPN, I assume many of you saw it, but I’ll try to describe some key plays while also providing a perspective on who was responsible for this big victory that pulls the Rockets within ½ game of the Utah Jazz for homecourt advantage in the playoffs.
Like many games in the NBA, this one got very interesting late in the fourth quarter when the Rockets had their biggest lead of the night — 12 points — with 4:30 remaining.
We’ve all seen Houston blow leads this season, but even I thought the game was over. After all, Kobe’s shot wasn’t falling in the second half, hitting only 1-of-11 shots in the third quarter and part of the fourth after scoring 25 in the first half. I thought he had finally cooled off, and “the butter was in the refrigerator,” and “the jello was jiggling,” or whatever former Laker announcer Chick Hearn used to say.
But then Kobe finally got hot again, outscoring Houston 12-3 all by himself to cut Houston’s lead to 91-88 with 1:47 remaining. It was just a matter of time before he would resurface. Just hold on, Houston. Just hold on.
Both teams would trade points in the next 1 minute and 30 seconds, scoring 4 points each to make it 95-92 with 16 seconds remaining. That gave the Lakers a chance to tie the game on the next inbounds play.
But you got the feeling the Rockets learned much from how they almost let their game against the Clippers get away from them on Wednesday night in a very similar situation.
In that game, Rafer Alston fouled Cuttino Mobley behind the three-point line much too close to Mobley getting off a shot that could have put him on the line to tie the game with three free throws in the game’s final seconds. But the Rockets lucked out and Mobley was only allowed to shoot two FTs.
This time against the Lakers, there was no question what they were going to do: foul immediately and leave no doubt that the Lakers would have to hit two free throws rather than give them a chance to tie it with a three-pointer.
On top of that, the Rockets played great inbounds defense and was able to force the Lakers to inbound the ball to Kwame Brown, a 42% free throw shooter.
The strategy worked…kind of. Brown missed both free throws, but as I’m sure many of you have seen on TV, the shot came off the rim hard and bounced toward the left sideline. Kobe sprinted over to grab the rebound, dribbled a couple of times down the sideline, then shot a fallaway three-pointer to tie the game with 11 seconds remaining!
I watched the replay several times, and it’s hard to blame any Rocket for letting that happen, although Jeff Van Gundy probably won’t let that stop him from ripping somebody. The odds of that missed free throw bouncing over everyone’s head over to the sideline like it did is so low, and Kobe did a great job getting over to it and hitting a clutch shot. That’s why Kobe is as great as he is.
Shaken but not devastated, T-Mac had a chance to win the game in the final seconds of regulation. In fact, before the last play was run, I had a feeling they were going to run the same play they had run against the Clippers to take the lead late in that game. And that was T-Mac with the ball out top, then coming around a Yao pick on the left side of the lane, then T-Mac dishing it into the corner to Shane Battier for a three-pointer.
Well, that’s exactly the formation they had perfectly set up for themselves, but instead of T-Mac going to his left around Yao’s screen, he decided to go to his right instead and shoot a jumper, which missed. Maybe T-Mac didn’t want to run the same play because he felt it would be too predictable. But it would have been nice to see if it would have worked for the second straight game in LA.
To OT we go
So the game headed to overtime, and I made a mental note that how the Rockets performed in OT after losing such a big lead would be indicative of how mentally strong they were becoming. Could they get past Kobe’s strong 17-point fourth quarter finish to erase that seemingly insurmountable 12-point lead with 4:30 to go?
It didn’t look good to start OT. The Lakers ended up taking a 4-point lead after Lamar Odom made the first of two free throws with 1:03 remaining. He could have made it a 5-point lead, but he missed the second free throw, still giving the Rockets a chance.
That’s when T-Mac and Yao teamed up for the unlikeliest of plays to get them back into the game. Out at the top of the three-point line, Yao set a screen for T-Mac. T-Mac came around Yao’s pick with Kobe trailing behind him. Kobe knew he couldn’t get around Yao cleanly to follow T-Mac and contest his shot, so Kobe actually tried to draw a foul on Yao by bumping into him to make it look like Yao was setting a moving pick. In other words, Kobe flopped.
Instead, Yao held his ground, and after Kobe’s attempt to get the ref to call a foul had failed, he also fouled T-Mac to make sure he couldn’t get off a shot. But it was too late. He caught T-Mac in the act of shooting, which gave him the chance to hit 3 free throw attempts to tie it!
First, I’ve got to give a ton of credit for the refs in making the right call when it would have been easy to fall for Kobe’s flopping antics in front of the home crowd. But they didn’t buy it. Props to the refs.
T-Mac then went to the line and calmly hit all 3 free throws, making it 104-103. Pretty clutch for a 70% free throw shooter who was having an off night from the field and who had missed several free throws in tight situations. Now all Houston needed was a stop.
They got that when Kobe amazingly missed a shot, with Yao grabbing the rebound with 33 seconds remaining.
On the Rockets’ ensuing possession with the team still down 104-103, T-Mac missed a jumper, BUT JUWAN HOWARD GRABBED THE OFFENSIVE REBOUND, AND INSTEAD OF PUTTING UP A LOW-PERCENTAGE SHOT IN TRAFFIC, HE LOBBED IT OVER KWAME BROWN’S HEAD TO YAO FOR A LAYUP, GIVING THE ROCKETS A 105-104 LEAD WITH 22 SECONDS REMAINING!
I have been disappointed in Juwan the past two games. Against the Clippers on Wednesday, he was 0-for-6. In this game, he was 0-for-5. But in my mind, this rebound and assist to Yao erased all of that bad karma.
So it came down to one more stop for the Rockets to retain their one-point lead.
Of course, Kobe was going to be the main man on this final possession. But as he was dribbling the ball up the court and crossed the halfcourt line, Battier and Yao came up to Kobe to apply some light pressure to impede his progress somewhat, and for some reason Kobe inexplicably lost his head and shuffled his feet for a travel!
Call it a fluke play — it was only Kobe’s third turnover for the game – but give credit for the Rockets applying pressure early on in the possession to make him think about it. If you do that enough times, good things will happen. Give almost as much credit to the refs for calling that travel, too.
As hot as Kobe was in this game (53 points), that play was huge. Kobe didn’t need a three-pointer to take the lead, just a two. His odds go up exponentially when all he needs is a regular bucket from inside the arc. He can shoot a fadeaway, drive to the lane, a number of things.
But it didn’t happen. Kobe messed up, even though he continued to plead his case after the game that the refs blew it. C’mon Kobe, you lost your credibility a long time ago.
Anyway, on the ensuing Rockets inbounds play, Rafer Alston was fouled. Rafer calmly stepped to the line and HIT BOTH FREE THROWS! Wow! Add that to the two free throws he hit near the end of regulation, and you now see a newfound respect of Rafer Alston from me.
Down by three points, that left nothing but a desperate three-pointer from Kobe to try to tie the game, but the shot missed, Juwan Howard grabbed the rebound, and that was it!
Obviously the Rockets walked into the locker room relieved that they pulled one of the wildest games of the year out of their hat.
Yao’s stats at the game were unbelievable: 39 points on 11-of-18 shooting, 17-of-21 from the line, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks. The only blemish was 5 turnovers and 5 fouls.
Although T-Mac made less than a third of his shots (7-of-24), he made 15-of-16 from the line to score 30 points, and dished 10 dimes.
Rafer finished with 19 points on 6-of-18 shooting, but he was 4-for-4 on those clutch free throws. Shane Battier was 3-of-7 from 3-point land for 11 points. And finally, Chuck Hayes finished with 6 points and 14 boards.
Other than that, the non-starters only scored two points for the game. Yup. Two points from Kirk Snyder, and that was it. Juwan’s 0-for-5 shooting in 23 minutes didn’t help, but I’ll take it if he can make a big play like he did on the assist to Yao to give the Rockets a lead they would not relinquish.
But when you look at the Lakers’ boxscore, they weren’t much better. Kobe’s 53 points stand out, but their bench only scored 6 points.
Shooting only 38% from the field, this was a true grit win for the Rockets. Especially since Utah lost to San Antonio Friday night, putting the Rockets only ½ game behind the Jazz with 9 games to play for the Rockets. That sets up a monstrous game between the Rockets and Jazz Sunday afternoon, which will play a big role in who gets home court advantage in their first round playoff series in a few weeks.
If they do win home court, this game will be one the Rockets will remember as being the catalyst to finishing the season strong thanks to big plays from everyone: Yao, T-Mac, Rafer, Juwan, Battier, and Chuck Hayes. Reminds me a lot of what Miami did last season where everyone contributed to win a ring against all odds.
I know I’m wrapping this blog entry pretty quick, but it was an intense game, it’s late, and I’ve got to get some sleep.