I know most of you all saw the gut-wrenching loss of the Rockets to the Jazz Saturday night in Game 7 that eliminated Houston, so I won’t go into details about their comeback attempt that wasn’t meant to be. Maybe I’ll do that when I get a chance to watch the game in its entirety on my DVR over the next day or two and dissect all the little things that were responsible for this crushing loss. This is probably similar to what the Rockets’ players will do after the sting from this loss wears off a bit.
Instead, I’ll describe what I saw in the locker room after the game, bring up a few key details from the game, and discuss a little bit about what I think the Rockets need to do next…
Locker room a tomb
Entering the Rockets’ locker room after the loss, I wasn’t too surprised to see what I saw, but it was still eerie to witness it firsthand.
Yao was sitting at his locker, motionless, staring at the floor in front of him. I presume that Van Gundy had just got through talking to his team. That’s what normally happens right before the locker room doors are opened to the media.
Unlike after the Rockets’ Game 5 victory when the media rushed directly to Yao, they were respectful and gave him his space. And when it was clear Yao wasn’t ready to talk, most of the reporters went to other parts of the locker room so he could gather himself. Yao then left his locker to get some kind of physical treatment like he normally does.
Shane Battier was the first player to finish dressing and was ready to talk. No surprise there. He’s one of the most media-friendly players in the NBA, even after a tough loss like this one.
Battier talked about how the Rockets’ defense was porous giving up 50% shooting from the field, and their team not grabbing long rebounds when the game was on the line.
I asked him about the game’s final seconds after Yao scored with about 10 seconds to make the score 101-99. Both he and Tracy McGrady had Deron Williams trapped somewhat, but opted not to foul him intentionally to send him to the line. Battier said that they were hoping Williams would throw a cross-court pass that could get intercepted by a Rocket defender, but there was no Rocket defender there to do it.
That may be what Battier was thinking in retrospect, but I think both he and McGrady were confused on what to do. Perhaps it was a deer-in-the-headlights syndrome? Bad coaching? Both? Either way, Battier has to be one of the smartest players in the league, and it shows even the smartest players can make mental mistakes in a crunch-time situation like this one.
While Shane was conducting his interview, next to his locker was McGrady getting dressed with his back turned to the room, which is standard operating procedure meaning the player isn’t ready to talk to reporters yet. He was obviously quite subdued and you had to feel for the dude with all that was at stake in this game for him. TNT reporter Craig Sager waited patiently for McGrady to get ready, then McGrady gave a one-on-one interview to him which I’m sure many of you saw on TV after the game. I was standing right behind the TNT cameraman, and I could hardly hear anything he was saying into the microphone. He was that quiet and despondent.
Yao is ready
Shortly after McGrady finished his interview, Yao returned to his locker, and the media came back to surround him. He was ready for questions, which he answered with open emotions.
Yao said, “I feel like I want to cry. I know everyone says that tomorrow is a new day and that I’ll have a long career, but in the last two weeks we’ve gone from up 2-0 all the way to 3-4, and it’s all over for our season. That’s very frustrating.”
“I didn’t do my job. I didn’t do a very good job of rebounding. Rebound, rebound, rebound. Whatever, long rebound, short rebound — it’s my job to rebound. You can’t say because it’s a long rebound that I couldn’t get it. I have to get it. I didn’t do my job.”
“There’s no way to get past this. We have to go through it. Whatever people say, we have to take it. If we hurt, we hurt. You know what? There are no shortcuts. You have to put your passion into the summer workouts and prepare for next season. The only way to get through is to just if you get your next chance, don’t let it pass.”
I asked him about his knee and the fact he seemed to play better, ironically, in the third quarter after he was hurt. He responded his knee still hurt, and he said a few other things about it. Because of time constraints and all the time I’m putting into this post, I’ll transcribe from my pocket recorder what he said in the next day or so.
Then wouldn’t you know it….a reporter stepped on his toe, making him writhe in pain just like after Game 5! It was not his night!
For other quotes from McGrady and Van Gundy, I won’t quote everything they said. It’s all very predictable (just like their offense). If you’re interested, just check out the video links at the bottom of this blog post.
Where’s the D?
Ironically it wasn’t the Rockets’ offense that did them in. They made a great comeback in the fourth quarter, down by eight points at the start of the quarter, to take a 5-point lead. But instead of putting them away, they let Utah get 7 offensive rebounds, several that turned into back-breaking shots, none bigger than Mehmet Okur’s three-pointer with 1:30 remaining to make it 99-95.
This team that was built on defense and rebounding (#1 in the league in both categories, I believe) absolutely lost their identity in this series. It was like all that emphasis on defense this season at the expense of an unimaginative offense was a waste.
Since Van Gundy isn’t going to change into Don Nelson or Mike D’Antoni anytime soon, that leads me to believe that something is going to happen with the coaching situation here in Houston. And when you think about it, the JVG era includes two playoff series where the Rockets were up 2-0 and lost the series.
Here’s my take: The NBA has changed, and the Rockets need to change with it. Just look at Phoenix and Golden State. I think we’re close to the end of an era where “defense wins championships” is the mantra for team success. In fact, I bet you that Phoenix wins the championship this year. San Antonio’s style of play won’t get it done in this new world order. Neither will Detroit’s. It’s now “outscore the other guy,” and there’s no shame if you’re outrebounded or if you give up 110 points if you score one more point than your opponent.
My bet is that Van Gundy will not return, and the Rockets will get a coach who emphasizes running and scoring, even at the expense of defense. This coach will be fine for the team to be in the top quartile of teams (top seven or eight) in defense and rebounding.
So how about Larry Brown, a proven champion unlike JVG? Or hell, maybe even an assistant from the Suns? I just don’t think Leslie Alexander or Houston fans will tolerate any longer defensive battles while the offense plods along, every possession is excruciatingly painful, and the team is ousted in first rounds of playoffs after being up 2-0.
What Yao needs
While we’re talking about improvements for next year, here are my thoughts about Yao…Nothing against Rockets’ assistant coach Tom Thibodeau. He has done a good job getting Yao to where he is. But it’s now time the Rockets get Yao to the next level by assigning him a Hall of Fame center who has played the game and been through the wars in the trenches.
The Rockets need to finally take up Moses Malone on his offer to help Yao become a warrior mentally and become a monster rebounder. And maybe Yao should go to Hakeem’s annual Big Man camp while he’s at it. And how about the next Rockets’ head coach bringing in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as an assistant coach where he would have a bigger role than what he has with the Lakers. No stone should be left unturned in getting Yao the help he needs.
The point is that Yao has good enough skills and height to warrant him getting honed by the greatest centers in the game. Next season will be his 6th year and he is close to hitting his prime, which in my mind is in years 7 thru 12, give or take a year on each end. It would be criminal to not get him the best coaching he can get by a big man who has won championships, and that does not include Patrick Ewing again.
Finally, what should be done with Tracy McGrady? I think he is good enough to stay unless the Rockets can get a super point guard (dreaming Jason Kidd?) along with an up-and-coming stud scorer (two-guard or power forward). Otherwise, I think Tracy should stay partly because there isn’t much better out there who would want to move (except for Kevin Garnett). But if he stays, he will need help. I don’t want his back to go out carrying the burden of the offense as much as he had to do this year. And who knows, I don’t think guys like John Lucas III, Vassilis Spanoulis, or Steve Novak are stiffs. They deserve a chance to play, even if they make mistakes.
McGrady needs help with players who can play a more up-tempo, free-flowing style. If they do, I think McGrady will flourish in a system where he has young players who can run with him. Since I attended UCLA, for years I have always liked Matt Barnes, even when he was in college. Even when he started his pro career and no team would keep him, even when fans thought he was a nobody. I knew Barnes could run, had an NBA body, long arms to block shots and get steals, and could shoot the three. Look what he’s doing now for Golden State?
It’s those kinds of players I think the Rockets should try to find using Daryl Morey’s statistical wizardry. Search the D-League, Europe, undrafted players, wherever. And maybe make a run at signing Barnes this off-season since he’ll be a free agent, although I’m sure he’ll be tough to sign.
Back to Yao…he may not be able to keep up physically with a running offense, but if you think about it, Kareem played with the “Showtime” Lakers and he managed just fine. And look at the Suns. Many times when they are running, they don’t even have all 5 players in the frontcourt to score. Regardless, if Yao can’t handle the minutes he plays now in a running system, then fine: cut back on his minutes. A rested Yao is better than one that fades in the fourth quarter and can’t go after rebounds, as seen Saturday night against Utah.
In closing my thoughts (for now) on Game 7, I’ll just mention again that I think they would have been slaughtered and humiliated by Golden State, and it’s probably a blessing in disguise to retool this off-season before trying to fight the Warriors this year. The teams the Rockets and everyone else will have to beat in the coming years are going to be the Suns and the Warriors. I just think a half-court oriented team that focuses on rebounding and defense like the Rockets do today don’t have a chance against those teams. Hell, they couldn’t even do it against the Jazz – a team that is built more like them.
All I have to say as I sign out for now is, “Dear Daryl, Please help us. Crunch those numbers and work your magic this off-season in finding undervalued, stud players that can help the Rockets. While you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt if those players test well for mental toughness.” And despite what some of the pundits say, I bet Vassilis Spanoulis could be one of them. You don’t defeat Team USA without having mental toughness, something we didn’t really have much of a chance of seeing this season in the current system.