I said last night after the loss to the Mavs that it would be a rare night when both Mike James and Bonzi Wells had off nights, and not to worry too much. Did that ever ring true Tuesday night when the Rockets beat the Spurs 89-80.
Although he was 4-of-13 from the field, James hit some very big shots down the stretch and shot for a pretty good percentage from three-point land (3-of-7). He is turning out to be what the Rockets exactly expected from him: an energy guy who has some speed, can penetrate into the lane, and can hit timely jump shots and three-pointers. Sure, it would be great if he was a Steve Nash-like passer who could find Yao no matter where he was, but wouldn’t it be for everybody?
Bonzi was incredible and really showed how much of a doofus Jeff Van Gundy was to put him in the doghouse last season, no matter what was going on in Bonzi’s brain. I know, I know, many of you are probably saying Bonzi had it coming last year because he was out-of-shape, etc. But that groin injury early in the season was the main reason he couldn’t burn off the weight, and by the time he could run, he said he needed to play himself into shape (Charles Barkley often did the same thing) and couldn’t get into shape on a stationary bike. His relationship with JVG and the team spiraled out of control from there.
Anyway, that’s old history, so let’s move on to Tuesday night where Bonzi was everywhere, scoring 14 points, grabbing 15 boards, and was the X-factor in winning this game. It was just like two years ago when he was with the Sacramento Kings and dominated the Spurs in the playoffs.
You can just tell by the passes that Bonzi makes that he has a high basketball IQ. He had at least 3 very good passes which led to buckets, including a wraparound pass behind Tim Duncan that went to Yao for a layup.
Bonzi is a different cat, just like Steve Francis is, and his effectiveness this season really shows how Van Gundy didn’t know how to deal with eccentric — yet very good — players. Good riddance JVG. Players love to play more for Rick Adelman, a player’s coach, and Bonzi is no exception. It’s just a shame he couldn’t have been around to give the Jazz some fits during last season’s playoffs. The Rockets needed all the help they could get against those guys, as well as many of their opponents the entire season when Yao and McGrady were having to carry so much of the load last season.
On Tuesday night, Yao had the kind of game we were hoping for on Monday night against Dallas. Yao scored 28 points on 12-of-24 shooting, grabbed 13 points and had 6 assists. His best stretch started in the third quarter when 4 Spurs surrounded him in the post, and he made them pay by finding Battier for a wide-open three for a 59-50 lead!
Then at the 2:58 mark, Yao was doubled at the side of the lane, and he found Chuck Hayes for a layup. This is the reason why Adelman and others think Yao can play the high-post: he can find open guys by looking and passing over the defense. It really makes a difference.
Then he had another stretch in the fourth quarter where he absolutely dominated. Passing out of another double-team, Yao found Mike James at the 7:58 mark for a wide-open three-pointer to make it 75-61! Great assist!
Then a couple of minutes later, Yao found Bonzi for a layup out of the high post! He’s really catching on to this high-post thing!
At the 2:38 mark after a timeout, Yao hit a sweet baseline jumper to make it 81-72. Then about 30 seconds later, he hit a jump hook to make it 83-72.
Give Tracy McGrady credit for deferring more to Yao in this game. McGrady must have realized that since he was having a tough shooting night (4-of-13 from the floor), why compound the problem and just defer to the other guys? Indeed, he let his teammates, especially Yao, shoot the ball more and it paid off. He also helped Yao by getting him the ball on some great assists, and racked up 6 dimes overall.
Now THIS is the way you play to win a playoff series.
In my book, something that has gone overlooked early in the season is Yao’s defense. It’s been better than ever, with him blocking many shots that he might not have swatted a few years ago. His speed seems to be much improved, probably because he has recuperated from his leg injury, but more importantly, he isn’t being run ragged by Van Gundy’s defense by having to come out of the lane and defend against guards with the ball.
After a terrible shooting night in Dallas, Shane Battier rebounded on Tuesday night and scored 12 points, all on three-pointers on 4-of-5 shooting. He hit a critical trey late in the fourth quarter to seal it.
Chuck Hayes got hit in the eye and had to go to the locker room to get it stitched up. Then his replacement, Luis Scola got in early foul trouble. That’s when the Rockets had to bring Dikembe Mutombo into the game in the first quarter, and he had a play that brought the house down. You’ve probably already seen the highlights, but believe it or not, he played the pick-and-roll with Battier, who then passed him the ball, with Deke then driving to the hole for a one-handed slam over Tim Duncan, and Toyota Center erupted!
Yao was right next to Mutombo when he did that, and he belted out a scream right afterwards, and then later both players chest bumped! I haven’t seen Yao that excited this entire season!
Another key factor in this win: 55-28. I can’t believe the Rockets out-rebounded the Spurs by that margin, and Tim Duncan made only 5-of-15 shots for 14 points. Great D by all.
Okay, not to nit-pick after a win, but here are some other weaknesses I’m starting to notice about this team that many others have probably noticed, too:
* Turnovers in the fourth quarter. The Rockets struggled again with TOs, especially Yao on several passes (he had 6 TOs himself).
* The team in general is not able to in-bound the ball from out-of-bounds. The Rockets had to call 2 timeouts in the final minutes of the game because of in-bounding problems.
* Rafer Alston continues to get torched by quick guards, this time by Tony Parker a couple of times. This continues to be a problem, and the Rockets need to fix it. You know it’s bad when normally nonchalant announcer Clyde Drexler even calls you out. After Parker blew by Alston for a layup, Drexler said: “Parker is taking it right to Rafer Alston. He’s got to step up and answer the challenge.” That’s a serious tongue-lashing in Clyde’s everything-is-great world.
* In the first half, Yao was missing relatively easy shots in the lane and around the rim. Luckily he was able to grab his own missed shots as offensive rebounds (pad his stats), and score by finally dunking it. He also missed a couple of jump hooks. It wasn’t until the second half when Yao warmed up and finally started hitting shots with the best consistency he’s had all season. I don’t know if he changed his mindset, but he seemed to be much more confident in the second half than the first half.
* Every time I see a point guard like Tony Parker, Jason Terry, Steve Nash, etc., it makes me think just how good the Rockets could be if they had a starting point guard who can break defenders down off the dribble as well as get the ball to Yao. Rafer really can’t do that, and he’s still not that great of a finisher, so it exposes the Rockets when the offense bogs down like it did at times on Tuesday when Yao or McGrady are double-teamed. Thank goodness they have options like Mike James, but despite being a good shooter, he can’t seem to get to the rack at any time. Luther Head showed some flashes of that in Dallas, but he didn’t Tuesday night against San Antonio. Steve Francis can do it when he’s in shape, but who knows when that will be. Aaron Brooks will definitely be able to do that, but he’s still too green to be playing significant minutes.
* Not to harp too much on Rafer, but he’s so inconsistent. Right when you think his shooting might be better — as seen by the threes he hit in Dallas — he throws another stinker. Tuesday night he went 1-for-5 and was 0-for-2 from three-point territory.
* Chuck Hayes is really a liability offensively that makes you feel the Rockets are playing with only four guys. He was 0-for-4 in the first half, scored 4 points overall, and it’s really starting to bug me. I’m looking forward to Luis Scola to get more playing time and hit his stride.
* I hate Manu Ginobili‘s flopping. He was in rare form Tuesday night. You’d think he would have stopped making a fool himself a long time ago.
You gotta love the Rockets are 4-1. Alot of people were complaining during the preseason that the Rockets still had too many problems. I attributed it to the fact that they weren’t playing for real. Now that they are, they aren’t doing all that bad, and they are only going to get better.