During the third quarter of Wednesday night’s game for the Rockets against Portland, it couldn’t get much better for Houston.
They had a 25-point lead and were rolling to an easy victory, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming were tuning up well for the playoffs, Utah had lost to Denver and by night’s end the Rockets were going to be 1 ½ games up on Utah for home court advantage in their first round playoff series (unthinkable about 10 days ago).
So naturally with the game in hand, I was starting to think of what Houston had to do in their 3 remaining games to stay ahead of Utah to secure home court in their playoff series.
But just as I started to think ahead to the playoffs, I think the Rockets did, too.
Like so many times this season, the Rockets let their opponent back into the game. By the 4:24 mark of the fourth quarter, Portland had cut that 25-point deficit to five points, 87-82.
To make matters worse, with less than two minutes remaining in the game as the Rockets were trying to survive the Blazer comeback attempt, T-Mac went down with what looked like a season-ending and playoff-ending knee injury in a scramble for a loose ball. Brandon Roy landed on his leg and knee awkwardly, twisting it and making T-Mac writhe in pain on the court.
In that one instant, all those thoughts about winning in the playoffs went out the door. But luckily T-Mac was able to get to the bench and didn’t go to the locker room, so he might be okay. But we’ll find out soon enough on Thursday.
And as T-Mac watched from the bench, the Rockets held on for a 99-95 win.
After the game, Jeff Van Gundy was obviously disgusted by how the Rockets let the Blazers back into the game, just like other teams have done so often this season against the Rockets. It would seem almost impossible for Portland to come back without injured players on the court, like Zach Randolph, Lamarcus Aldridge, Darius Miles, and Joel Pryzbilla like they did.
Well, I have a theory on why it’s happening….
I think it’s because Van Gundy has gambled by going with only an 8-man rotation, which I believe tires out his starters [Note: see my comment to Jeffrey’s question in the comments at the end of this blog post for more elaboration]. He has even said in the past that he expects his superstars to play a ton of minutes in the playoffs, so they better get ready for it. But I think it could be to the detriment of the team. They are exhausted by the time the other team makes their second half, or fourth quarter. run.
It’s no coincidence that the Rockets start off hot in first quarters, having scored 30+ points in the opening quarter many times this season. They are fresh and expend alot of energy to get off to a great start. Early in this game, Yao looked great, relaxed and in rhythm while making jumper after jumper. In the first quarter, he hit 4-of-6 shots for 8 points, and T-Mac was decent with 3-of-7 for 7 points. Even Rafer Alston had an outstanding quarter, making 3-of-4 shots for 7 points.
But by the second half, Yao made only 3-of-10 shots, and 1-of-5 in the fourth quarter. Playing 21 of the 24 minutes in the second half, it was obvious he was sucking wind. He even missed two consecutive free throws in the fourth quarter, almost unheard of for Yao these days as an 86% free throw shooter.
I wish there was some kind of stat that could tell us when Yao has expended a lot of energy in the first half, how he fares in the second half. But it’s pretty subjective to figure out the amount of “energy expended.” You can’t really base it off minutes played since it doesn’t take into account how much work is being put out to get open, rebound, etc.
Continuing with the theme that maybe Van Gundy has decided to put all of his eggs in one basket…
Should the season really come down to one player like T-Mac getting injured or not? Shouldn’t coaches try to cultivate new players during the regular season, let those players learn a little by making mistakes, and reap the benefits late in the season and playoffs when these players are hardly rookies any longer IF they have been giving ample playing time?
That’s one of the things that I think Van Gundy doesn’t do very well. He admittedly trusts veterans more than rookies, but I guess he expects other teams to suffer through young players’ mistakes, then acquire them after they are more seasoned (e.g., Shane Battier).
Perhaps the only exceptions to this rule are Chuck Hayes and Luther Head. who are young players that are making a difference in JVG’s scheme. But don’t forget that Head got a lot of playing time last season out of necessity because of the back problems that T-Mac suffered last year, and Hayes because of Yao’s injuries. If it hadn’t been for the desperation the Rockets had last season to fill those holes, both players probably would not be making the great contributions they have been making this season.
I do know that if Rudy Tomjanovich or other coaches had players like Steve Novak, John Lucas III, Vassilis Spanoulis and even Jake Tsakalidas on the bench, they would be giving them more playing time as a hedge for when the starters hit some shooting slumps or get injured. We’ve all seen encouraging play from these guys, but yet this season they haven’t received enough seasoning to provide sufficient support to the starters.
I’m not saying the Rockets need to play 10 guys now. Maybe 9 guys and alternate in Novak, Lucas, Spanoulis or Tsakalidas when the matchups require more support from one of these guys. But even I’ll admit that it may be too late in the season to bring in one more guy off the bench, simply because it’s too risky and these players haven’t cut their teeth in enough game situations to be relied upon yet. The damage by not cultivating them has already been done.
Back to the game
When Portland was making their comeback in the third and Yao started missing shots, it was obvious the Rockets were really needing him to come back in to “right the ship.” Once he did come back into the game, that’s just what he did. He dished assists, dove for loose balls, hit a cold-blooded three, drove to the hoop for a layup, and was instrumental for the Rockets to win this game before he got hurt.
In the first half, the Rockets were hitting on all cylinders. T-Mac scored 7 points, taking second-year player Martell Webster to school by driving past him for buckets. Then when the Blazers put Brandon Roy on him, T-Mac shaked and baked Roy for a sweet jumper.
Meanwhile, the Rockets’ defense was awesome, especially in the first quarter. They clogged up the middle and blocked 3 shots, had 3 steals, and held Portland to 31.8% shooting to take a 28-16 lead. I don’t think I have seen the Rockets defense any better, but I have to temper that statement with the fact that many of the aforementioned Blazer players were out because of injury.
If it hadn’t been for Rookie of the Year (certain choice…that is) Brandon Roy with 8 points, it would have been a lot worse.
But then right before halftime, Rafer stole the ball and hit a three to give the Rockets their biggest lead, 53-36. By halftime, Rafer was 6-of-9 with 15 points (3-of-4 from three-point land).
Yao had 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting by halftime. It was looking so effortless for Yao. He also had 7 boards. And T-Mac had 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting, had 4 assists and 3 steals.
Like I mentioned earlier, the Rockets opened up a 25-point lead in the third, only to have Portland chip away and cut it to as little as 3 points before the Rockets were able to save the game by hitting most of their foul shots on intentional fouls.
By the end of the game, T-Mac and Yao had combined for 59 points, 27 and 32 respectively. Yao had 12 boards and 3 assists, while T-Mac had 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals.
One of the main keys to this victory was Alston, who scored 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including 4-of-8 from three-point territory. It’s no secret now that when the Rockets have a third player who scores well and shoots a decent percentage, the odds are very high Houston is going to win assuming Yao and T-Mac are getting their usual numbers.
Crucial games ahead
With the Portland game done and the Rockets ahead of the Jazz 1 ½ games with 3 to play (4 for the Jazz), the following games are going to be huge in determining if the Rockets will get home court advantage against the Jazz in the playoffs.
Friday: Utah at Dallas – Will Dallas continue to not play Dirk Nowitzki, Jerry Stackhouse, Erick Dampier and Devin Harris so they can rest before the playoffs? If that happens, then something is very wrong with that. I can’t believe no one from the League office has told the Mavs they need to put forth the best effort to win every game, so don’t hold anyone out from the regular season games like they did against Minesota Wednesday night. If Dallas loses that game, something isn’t right with teams coasting their way to the finish line like that and spoiling the integrity of the game. It has been brought up before with other teams in the same situation, so I don’t know why it didn’t apply with the Mavs against the Timberwolves.
Saturday: Utah at Phoenix – It’s hard to imagine the Suns losing this game. They are the superior team by far, are trying to fend off San Antonio (currently 2 games behind) from catching them for the second seed in the playoffs, and they are tuning up for the playoffs just like everyone else.
Saturday: New Orleans/OK City at Houston – The Rockets have to win this game. If they do, and Utah loses to Dallas on Friday and Phoenix on Saturday, then the Rockets will have a 3-game lead with two games to play, and will clinch home court against the Jazz. If they lose against the Hornets, then it gets very complicated, and I don’t want to confuse you with what would need to happen. Let’s just see where things stand Saturday night.