Monday night was the kind of game you wait for all season. It was a game that everyone in Houston had marked on their calendar as an “L” against the amazing Phoenix Suns. In a great season that has had many memorable wins (remember beating San Antonio on the road earlier in the season?), the Rockets played an almost near perfect game to get a win when they really needed it.
With home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs at stake, the Rockets shocked the scoreboard watchers in Utah – and around the league – by pulling off a 120-117 victory over the heavily favored Suns.
I can only imagine what the reaction was in Salt Lake City when the fans at the Jazz-Portland game found out the shocking news when they heard Houston had beaten Phoenix. Taking a line from the old V-8 commercials while slapping their head, “Ohh, I could have had home court advantage!”
Instead, the Rockets were the ones savoring every last drop of their highly-caffeinated brew of run-and-gun offense, outscoring the highest-scoring team in the league for once.
On cue, the Rockets seem to be putting it all together. T-Mac is taking charge. Yao is a monster. The role players are hitting big shots.
Remember those games over the past two weeks where the Rockets have blown leads and Van Gundy has been grumpy about poor execution? All of that seems forgotten for now. I went on record saying I wasn’t concerned about those lapses because wins are still wins, and it shows the Rockets might have the stuff to create a lot of damage in the playoffs.
I may still be proven wrong, but right now, I think most of Houston is on a high this morning and thinking that way.
After losing to Utah at home on April 1st to drop 1.5 games behind the Jazz with only 9 games left in the season, the Rockets have not only risen from the dead to win home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs against Utah, but they did it by beating the juggernaut of a Suns team they hadn’t beaten in 6 attempts. Who would have thought on April Fools Day it would have come down to this?
With nothing really to play for since they had already locked in the #2 playoff position, the Suns threw everything at the Rockets and tried to win this game. I was hoping for some charity work from them, but that wasn’t going to happen. After all, they shot 57% from the field and scored 117 points.
Yet Houston still prevailed by keeping up with the Suns and going on an offensive explosion that has become part of their norm lately.
Like Van Gundy said after the game, though. The home court advantage really doesn’t have much of a bearing except in the final 3 or 4 minutes of a Game 7. I completely agree. But there is something about setting a goal to win home court advantage, and doing it in such dramatic fashion. If anything, it’s definitely a confidence builder.
I loved watching the reaction after the game. Yao said, “We were so excited when the clock was running to zero. It feels like winning a playoff series.” Yao and T-Mac embraced briefly with smiles from ear-to-ear. Seeing them finally get some relief and have such joy in a long and arduous season brought chills down my spine.
What also gave me goose bumps was the intensity that Yao showed in the fourth quarter, both on and off the court. Coming out of two timeouts, Yao had his arm around T-Mac and was giving him special instructions for the next offensive play they were about to run.
If I recall, none of those plays worked out, but it was great to see the dynamic duo ratcheting up their intensity — with Yao leading it — and trying to play smart down the stretch.
On the court, the numbers were astronomical. Yao scored 34 points on 70% shooting (yes, 70%: 14-of-20) and grabbed 9 boards. You could tell he was gassed even in the first quarter the way the Suns were running him – and everyone else – around the court. Business as usual.
T-Mac did his Kobe Bryant impression by “imposing his will” and completely taking over, scoring 39 points on 14-of-31 shooting (not bad), grabbing 11 boards and dishing 9 dimes in what was almost his first triple-double in 4 years. The guy still has it.
He scored 25 of those points in the first half on 9-of-17 shooting with highlight reel plays. But still, the Rockets only held a 56-54 lead at halftime.
In the third quarter, the Rockets got separation by going on an 10-0 run and scored the most amount of points in a third quarter this season – 35 – and held a 91-79 lead heading into the fourth quarter. At one point late in the third, the lead was an amazing 15 points.
But you knew it wasn’t going to hold up against the high-powered Suns. The Suns came back and cut the lead to only 3 points. A few misguided plays from the Rockets on offense didn’t help, and the Suns took advantage.
Phoenix is completely amazing in how they can score at will. But the Rockets held them off. What helped were big shots in the fourth quarter, and few turnovers relatively speaking (6 in the second half) against a team that can easily throw you off your rhythm.
Yao only committed one turnover for the entire game, and he did a great job not getting himself in trouble when the Suns double and triple-teamed him. He got the ball out of the post with accurate passes to his teammates. Give lots of credit to Yao for playing a smart offensive game.
Yao also had several offensive rebounds where he put the ball back up for a score, and was fouled. For once Yao’s height looked like it was too much for the Suns to overcome.
If there was one thing I was lamenting during the game was the fact that Amare Stoudemire has finally developed a mid-range jump shot, and was hitting them consistently. That’s a new weapon he has put into his arsenal this season after being injured most of last season.
What hurts is that Yao has always had that mid-range jump shot, long before Amare developed his, yet Van Gundy doesn’t want to use it in Yao’s offensive attack at all. When you see Stoudemire hitting those shots combined with the power he has down low, like Yao has, it makes you wonder just how much more dominant Yao can be if he were able to shoot those jumpers. You’ve seen in that NBA commercial how accurate he is from the elbow of the paint by draining one shot after another. But right now, I can’t complain after such a big win. I’ll bring that up another day when it’s appropriate (and you can bet it will happen).
The Rockets’ defense also deserves a ton of credit for this win, even after letting Phoenix shoot 57% and score 117 points. They were able to get stops when they absolutely needed them, and they made Steve Nash pick up his dribble several times in the lane to throw off his attack, even after finishing with 15 assists.
The Rockets also got 7 steals. On one memorable possession for Phoenix, the shot clock was winding down and Amare made a strong move into the lane, but shut off in the paint by great Rocket D, he passed out to a perimeter player, but Rafer Alston anticipated the pass and stole the ball, ran down court for a layup attempt, and was fouled. It’s a sight to behold to see the Rockets give the Suns a little bit of their own medicine and fast break against the Suns.
The other difference maker was on the boards. The Rockets pounded the Suns 46-31 in rebounds, and 19 offensive boards to 7 for the Suns. Houston may not have many advantages over the Suns, but they exploited the one they do have – height and rebounding — to score 30 second-chance points. After hearing that stat after the game, Yao even said, “Wow” and immediately agreed that was the difference in the ball game.
The role players
Although Yao and T-Mac got all the headlines in this game, Shane Battier was incredible, hitting 5-of-6 three-pointers and scoring 18 points. He hit some big treys down the stretch to fend off the hard-charging Suns. It’s good to see him get his shooting touch back lately. He also led the Rockets with 3 steals.
Luther Head also hit 2-of-4 three-pointers to chip in 8 points. Those were big buckets. He also had 3 assists.
Juwan Howard grabbed 9 boards (5 offensive) and put back a couple of shots for big scores. I was surprised to see that he shot only 3-of-10 from the field, with many of those misses coming on wide open mid-range jumpers.
The Rockets are going to absolutely need his outside shooting to go far in the playoffs. Remember if he hadn’t come down with that heart ailment a couple of seasons ago during the Mavericks playoff series, I think the Rockets could have taken the Mavs that season.
Even though Dikembe Mutombo didn’t score, he gave Yao a much needed breather with 9 minutes. In those 9 minutes, he grabbed 9 boards (4 offensive) and had two key put-backs after grabbing two consecutive offensive rebounds to keep the pressure on the Suns.
Rafer Alston only shot 3-of-12, including 1-of-6 from three-point land (no surprise there), but he hit a couple of big runners in the lane in a game where every basket counted, and he made all four of his free throws, committed only two turnovers, and grabbed two steals.
It was good to see John Lucas III get into the act. Because of his quickness, he came into the game to defend against speedy 6th Man of the Year candidate Leandro Barbosa, and on one possession move his feet quick enough to draw a charge against him.
What to do in Utah?
Now the Rockets head to Utah to play the final game of the regular season. With home court locked up, it will be interesting to see how Van Gundy plays his players. I think he’ll do what Phoenix did in this last game. Play his starters, but don’t have them log tons of minutes. The weird dynamic that applies here is that the Rockets don’t want to let the Jazz get any confidence as they head into their playoff series, but they also don’t want to show the Jazz all of their intensity and save it for the games that count.
Maybe Van Gundy should keep giving John Lucas III more minutes to give the Jazz more to think about, and play Yao and T-Mac about 30 minutes max.