What else can you say about the Rockets’ 123-112 win against New Orleans Saturday night in Houston? It was one of the biggest wins of the season in defeating a team that had beaten them each time this year, and kept the Rockets’ quest to win home court against the Jazz in the playoffs alive.
We really learned much about how well the Rockets might perform in the playoffs by doing what they had to do to win this game, despite all the telltale signs that this was a game they would probably lose
The Rockets and Hornets were trading blows all game long like it was a prizefight. But not until the fourth quarter when T-Mac went on a tear to score 11 points in a row did the Rockets put the game away. T-Mac finished the game making 8 of his last 9 shots, and 9 of his last 11, after only making 2-of-7 in the first half.
Just like T-Mac had iterated in a Houston Chronicle article on Friday that now “it’s time,” he put his money where his mouth was and came through by hitting huge buckets when the Rockets really needed them. He essentially willed his team to a win down the stretch.
The Rockets needed all the help they could get because they couldn’t stop the Hornets’ offense. The Hornets were incredible, racking up 62 points in the second half, the highest number of points the Rockets had given up in a second half all season long, and shooting 54.2% from the field for the game.
David West scored 33 (his third 30+ point game in a row), Marc Jackson 22, Devin Brown 21, and Chris Paul 20. And they did all this without Desmond Mason, and potential most-improved-player-of-the-year candidate Tyson Chandler (sore big toe) who can give Yao problems down in the post.
It’s hard to believe the Hornets aren’t going to make the playoffs. Their 37-43 record is not indicative of how good they are. That just goes to show how competitive the Western Conference is this season. But some years are like that. I remember during the Rudy T. era the Rockets finished 45-37 one season, and they still missed the playoffs, which was one of the best records for a team that didn’t make the playoffs.
Without Chandler in the lineup, Yao had his way with one-on-one defensive coverage on him most of the night. Yao scored 30 points on 11-of-16 shooting, and 8-of-11 from the line. He also had two blocks. But the one stat that several people (sportswriters, Van Gundy, even Yao himself) made fun of was his two rebounds.
But I’m not too worried about Yao’s low rebound total. When the opposing team is shooting 54.2%, and a lot of the missed shots are long jumpers that can bounce unpredictably, you can’t get on Yao too much. And I remember when Houston won their championships in the 90’s, they were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league. So I believe rebounding can be overrated.
In a win like this one, you can expect that Yao and T-Mac (25 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds) are going to get their points, but the difference will be the contribution from the role players. That’s exactly what Houston got with one of Rafer Alston’s best games as a Rocket: 21 points (5-of-10 three-pointers), 13 assists, with big shots and one huge assist to T-Mac for a dunk occurring down the stretch to put the game away for the Rockets.
That’s what you like to see from Rafer, who played very well for Miami a few seasons ago during the playoffs. Some players shine during the playoffs when the pressure is on. I remember Kenny Smith was like that during the Rockets’ championship runs in the mid-90’s. We can only hope that Rafer is starting to fall into that category.
Luther Head was solid as usual, scoring 15 points and hitting 3-of-4 three-pointers. And Shane Battier went on an offensive ‘explosion’ by scoring 14 points, including a humongous three-pointer right after T-Mac’s dunk that put the game out of reach late in the fourth, and which also brought the house down with a deafening roar. Again, big-time players doing what it takes in the clutch.
Last but not least, Juwan Howard finally found his shooting touch, hitting 5-of-9 shots for 10 points. If he can consistently hit those 10 to 14 foot jumpers from the free throw line area in the playoffs, and Rafer can continue to hit his shots, the Rockets can go a long way.
With the confidence the Rockets now have in winning their fourth in a row just at the right time of the season, they can see just how good they are in their ‘next big game’ against Phoenix on Monday night.
If the Rockets win that game, they win home court advantage against Utah in the first round of the playoffs. They have the Suns to thank for that after Phoenix blew out the Jazz in Utah Saturday night to make the Rockets’ “magic number” to win home court advantage against the Jazz just 1 game.
Trying to defeat the Suns on Monday night will be their biggest test of the season because they haven’t beaten them this year, the Suns’ roster creates tough matchups, and their pick-and-roll offense gives the Rockets so much trouble defensively.
In addition, if San Antonio defeats the Mavericks in Dallas on Sunday afternoon, then the Suns will be highly motivated to beat the Rockets since the Spurs will be only two games behind the Suns to try to get home court advantage, with 2 games left to play in the season.
So Monday’s game between the Rockets and Suns will be the closest thing to a playoff game the Rockets will have played in…..well, 48 hours. The games gets more important each day. Man, I love this time of year!