On Wednesday night, the Rockets showed to me many of the flaws that will lead to their demise in the playoffs. They not only lost to the Golden State Warriors 110-99, which didn’t surprise me. They were dominated. Part of the reason was because they held Western Conference player of the week Yao Ming to 9 points on 2-of-4 field goal attempts. Amazing.
What’s frustrating is that the Rockets seem to have no answer for high-powered offenses like Phoenix (who they haven’t beaten all year), Dallas (who they are 1-3 against) and now the much improved Warriors. What’s even more frustrating is that Jeff Van Gundy doesn’t seem to be able to adapt his game plan for teams like those.
Consistently Wednesday night the Rockets tried to keep pounding it into Yao despite having two or three defenders on him. Golden State was doing an excellent job defensively on Yao, and they made it very difficult for the Rockets to get him the ball in the post. It’s not as easy as people (like the Rocket TV announcers) would think. When the defenders are fronting Yao, and have a man behind him, and are basically playing zone defense against him with hands constantly up, it’s going to be hard to get Yao the ball without risking a turnover or a three-second violation in the lane.
Yet, that’s what the Rocket perimeter players continued to do. I counted at least 8 turnovers resulting from them trying to get Yao the ball in a tough position, resulting in either a tipped or stolen pass. Give credit to Warriors coach Don Nelson for exploiting the absence of T-Mac, out with a stiff back (more on that later).
On the other end, Van Gundy said after the game that the way the Rockets should beat that kind of defense is to make their perimeter shots. Jeff, that’s true. But I’m sorry, if you haven’t figured it out by now, you don’t have enough personnel who can do that consistently. You have Luther Head, who stepped up in T-Mac’s absence by hitting 7-of-9 three-pointers for 30 points, but many of those came when the Rockets were just about dead down by 16 points in the fourth quarter.
Shane Battier is usually pretty decent from the outside, but he only hit 4-of-17 shots (3-of-11 three-pointers). But you just can’t expect Shane to turn on the offense when he hasn’t been geared to be that kind of player this season.
We all know Rafer Alston is very inconsistent, although he started off hot by making his first two 3-pointers. He finished making 4-of-9 three pointers and 7-of-17 overall. His problem seemed to be finishing on layups (sound familiar?), missing a couple of chippies, and turning the ball over 6 times – several TOs coming from trying to force-feed the ball down into Yao.
Then after that, you have Kirk Snyder, who struggled from outside making 2-of-9 from the field, and 1-of-5 overall. But Snyder hasn’t shown all season he can hit the outside shot consistently, so how can JVG expect him to do it now?
Then you’ve got the Rockets best outside shooter, Steve Novak, wasting away on the bench because JVG thinks he’s a defensive liability. But that’s JVG’s decision to focus more on defense and have a talent like that go to waste. All that promise we had after the Rockets drafted him seems like eons ago.
Lastly, you’ve got Vassilis Spanoulis and John Lucas, who you finally let get some minutes because of T-Mac’s back situation. But because you have decided to go with a short lineup, they haven’t got enough playing time to be consistent enough from the outside.
So what do you expect? What JVG should have done is make other adjustments. How about pulling Yao out from the post and letting him get the ball outside the lane, face up, and shoot over the defense if he wants?
He’s your best shooter, as proven by him hitting close to 86% of his free throws. But no, JVG has been so adamant to make Yao a post player, he has completely neutralized him and taken away one of his greatest strengths before JVG got hold of him, and that’s his outside shooting.
I actually think Yao can make the 10-14 foot jump shot with consistency, but for some reason Van Gundy doesn’t want to use that part of his game to combat these double and triple teams. Instead, he says that Yao should do better in grabbing offensive rebounds when his teammates miss perimeter shots. That may be true, but at this point, you obviously cannot rely on that. That’s where JVG has to adapt to the personnel HE has chosen to be part of this team, and he isn’t doing it.
Building a team that can be great defensively, like the Rockets are, is JVG’s choice. I don’t have a problem with that. But by focusing so much on defensive-minded players, he is either limited in what he can do offensively, or doesn’t focus enough on what changes they need to make offensively, or both.
Just look at how UCLA fared during the NCAA tournament. UCLA’s defense took them a long way to the Final Four this past season, but when they met a high-powered Florida offense that plays pretty good defense as well, they were no match to the Gators for the second year in a row. That’s because UCLA coach Ben Howland focuses too much on playing players with great defensive ability at the expense of offensive output for the team when they really need it. Sound familiar?
You’ve got to do something different to have a chance to beat the big boys. How about putting Bonzi Wells in the lineup to give them another low-post scoring threat? Oh yeah, I forgot. For some reason JVG has some kind of problem with how well prepared Bonzi is to play. I can guarantee you 90% of the other coaches in the league wouldn’t be wasting a talent like Wells on the bench. They would take some of the bad to get a lot of the good.
In the end, that’s what will lead to the Rockets’ demise, and what may keep Van Gundy from getting his contract renewed if he keeps being so single-minded and they continue to lose to the run-and-gun offenses of the league, like Phoenix, Dallas, and now Golden State.
On the bright side, the Rockets might have done themselves a favor. By losing to the Warriors, Golden State is that much closer to getting the 8th and final seed in the Western Conference playoffs. They are now 1.5 games behind with 7 remaining to play. The unfortunate thing is the LA Clippers, who they are chasing, are starting to play alot better.
If the Warriors get that 8th seed, then they will play Dallas in the first round. And I think they could give the Mavericks alot of trouble. They beat them 117-100 on March 12th, and they also beat Phoenix last Thursday 124-119. And of course, they also have Dallas’ ex-coach Don Nelson going against them. Boy, that would be fun to watch!
Can you imagine what would happen if the Mavericks were eliminated? That would make it a much easier road for Houston to get to the Western Conference finals if the Rockets are able to get past Utah. That’s a big “IF.”
More on the game
The Rockets got off to a slow start, especially after T-Mac was pulled out of the game after the first 7 minutes because of a stiff back. A lot of the Houston sportswriters who cover the Rockets were upset that they didn’t get an explanation on why T-Mac wasn’t put back into the game when he normally is, especially when Vassilis Spanoulis and John Lucas III were inserted.
At that point, I didn’t really care about the reason. Obviously something was wrong with him physically and we would learn about it later. But for some reason the sportswriters were thinking there was some kind of conspiracy that the Rockets were trying to hide something.
Anyway, Houston was down 17-7 to start the game, but they went on a 12-3 run to make it 20-19, with the Rockets making 5 of their first 12 three-pointers in the first quarter.
But Baron Davis was killing them, scoring 16 of the Warriors 18 points during one stretch. Man, I wish the Rockets had grabbed him a few years ago when he was available. He is so explosive. Can you imagine if he played along side T-Mac and Yao?
With about 6 minutes remaining in the second quarter, Van Gundy put in Spanoulis, and I applauded him. Vassilis actually did a decent job. On one possession he drove into the lane, kicked it out to Kirk Snyder at the top of the arc, who then stutter-stepped around his defender and drove to the basket for a layup, making it 46-38 Golden State.
Then later Vassilis penetrated into the lane and kicked it out to Shane for a three-pointer. He also played pretty good defense. Maybe now that Vassilis has proven he’s not a total loser to JVG, he’ll get more minutes.
Ultimately, the Rockets tied the game at 62-62 with 7:15 remaining after Chuck Hayes stole the ball, then threw a beautiful T-Mac-like pass to Rafer Alston streaking toward the other end of the court, with Rafer scoring on a reverse layup.
But then Golden State went on a 22-10 run to finish out the third quarter, and led 84-72 heading into the fourth quarter.
By that time, Yao had only taken 4 shots because of the great defense played against him. Ultimately the Rockets fell behind 90-74 until Luther Head started hitting a bunch of three-pointers to get them back into the game with 3:50 remaining, down 99-93.
Once the Rockets got close at 100-96 going “small” with Juwan Howard playing center, Van Gundy sent Yao to the scorers’ table to enter the game, but for some reason he decided to bring him back to the bench. I don’t know if he was trying to reward Howard with more minutes, but it eventually backfired since Howard missed a couple of free throws down the stretch. Those wasted points were precious when you know Yao would have hit those free throws. Finally, he put Yao in with 1:05 remaining with the Rockets down 105-99, but it was too little, too late.
Like I mentioned earlier, some of Van Gundy’s coaching decisions befuddle me. Like I said the other day after they lost to Utah, PLAY THE PERCENTAGES!
Speaking of percentages, the Warriors shot an amazing 45.7% from three-point land (16-of-35). When the Rockets’ vaunted defense gives up that high of a percentage, and they can’t get Yao shots on a night when T-Mac is out, the Rockets’ chances of winning are going to be very low.
With the Rockets chances of winning the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs just about out of reach – 1.5 games behind Utah with 7 left to play – you can bet the Rockets are going to make sure T-Mac’s back gets some rest. Maybe during that time the Rockets can get Yao some jump shots and not have him expend so much energy trying to get open against double and triple-teams.