The Rockets had no business winning Sunday night in Charlotte. Except for Yao Ming, who was absolutely fantastic, the Rockets shot poorly, had no production from their bench, and turned the ball over way too many times. But thanks to Tracy McGrady finally taking it to the basket in the fourth quarter (rather than settle for jumpers), and Yao’s consistency throughout the game, the Rockets pulled out an impressive 85-82 come-from-behind victory.
Yao put together a game that makes you think, at this rate, that the league MVP could be a real possibility, just like it was last season before he got hurt. Yao made an incredible 13-of-15 shots to score 34 points, making all 8 of his free throws along the way, including two FTs that put the Rockets up 83-82 with 20.4 seconds left. He also had 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks.
It was fun to watch this game because there seemed to be a large contingent of Yao fans in Charlotte, of all places, cheering Yao when he scored, more than most small market arenas that Yao visits.
The only “down” side to Yao’s performance was that 6 turnovers were attributed to him, but it seemed like several of those TO’s were a result of poor passes into the low block that would be hard for anyone to handle.
One score he had in the first quarter was absolutely inspiring. On that play, Bonzi Wells grabbed a defensive rebound and threw a long pass to Yao, who was running down the court ahead of everybody. Yao caught the ball on a dead run in the paint and laid the ball in! Who says Yao can’t run the floor? Give credit to Bonzi for throwing such an accurate pass, something that seems so underrated in Bonzi’s all-around game.
As great as that pass was, the Rockets’ overall care of the ball was terrible in the first half. They had 12 turnovers by halftime compared to the Bobcats’ five, and they were lucky to only be trailing 40-35 considering they shot 38.2% from the floor. The only saving grace for the Rockets was that Charlotte was just as bad, shooting 39.5%, despite beating the Rockets down the floor numerous times to outscore them 14-2 on fast break points.
Yao was 7-of-7 from the floor with 17 points in the first half, while McGrady was 4-of-11 with 10 points. That was about it for the Rockets. Shane Battier had a terrible game, hitting no shots in the first half (0-for-3) and finishing with 2 points overall (2-of-4 free throws). It was so bad for Battier, I later caught Mr. Clean for the first time yelling the “F” word after he got called for a charge and turning the ball over.
Rafer Alston was “0-fer” in the first half, missing all 3 of his shot attempts. Chuck Hayes scored 2 points, Mike James had two, Luis Scola had 4, and even Bonzi Wells was 1-for-5 with 2 points. It’s clear in this early season that when James and Bonzi are both not shooting well, the Rockets’ chances of winning are very, very low (re: loss to Dallas).
Things didn’t get much better for most of the Rocket players in the third quarter, except Yao kept on trucking with 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting. Rafer chipped in by making 2-of-3 three-pointers.
During that third quarter, Tracy McGrady was really hurting his team by continuing to shoot ill-advised jumpers (1-for-5 in the quarter), which was a huge mystery given how dominant Yao was. Why couldn’t he let Yao continue with his hot hand like he did in the previous game in the Yao vs. Yi matchup against Milwaukee? In this game Yao had scored 24 of the Rockets’ last 29 points at one point, so why not just continue “feeding the beast?”
Well, at least McGrady did show some willingness to get the ball to the big guy at the end of the third quarter when he drove down the side of the lane, drew 3 defenders, dished it to Bonzi along the sideline behind the three-point line, THEN BONZI THREW A TOUCH PASS TO YAO DOWN LOW FOR THE DUNK! Again, another great pass by Bonzi. The guy knows how to play, even when he’s not making shots like tonight.
That play cut the Rockets’ deficit to 5 points entering the fourth quarter, but the Bobcats extended the lead to 69-60 with a little over 10 minutes remaining in the game. However, Yao started bringing the Rockets back into contention when he grabbed a rebound after a Luther Head air-ball from 3-point range, then laid it in!
On the next Rockets possession, Yao handed the ball to Luther Head along the baseline for a reverse layup. That made the score 69-64, Charlotte. Then with 8:25 remaining, Yao threw a perfect cross-court pass to Mike James, who drilled his only 3-pointer of the night! That made the score 69-67, and the Rockets were back in business.
Over the next few minutes, Yao would hit a baseline jumper and block a shot. Then McGrady finally got going again, hitting a long two-pointer, scoring an impossible reverse layup, then getting fouled that sent him to the line. McGrady hit both free throws to finish off scoring 7 points in a row and tying the game at 78-78 with 1:24 remaining.
McGrady would continue his fourth quarter reawakening by scoring a runner in the lane while getting fouled. After making the free throw, the Rockets led 81-80 with 54 seconds remaining.
The Bobcats would respond when Raymond Felton drove to the hoop and got Yao to foul him. Felton would make both free throws to give the Bobcats an 82-81 lead with 38 seconds left in the game.
That set up the two biggest plays of the game for the Rockets when Alston, of all people, jacked up a three-pointer to try to take the lead. His shot missed, but YAO GRABBED THE REBOUND, PUT UP A SHOT that missed, BUT HE WAS FOULED BY EMEKA OKAFOR. That foul put Yao on the line, who calmly sank both free throws to give the Rockets an 83-82 lead with 20.4 seconds remaining. There was a time a couple of years ago where Yao might have missed one fo those free throws. He is really feeling confident these days.
The Bobcats would have one more crack at it when Gerald Wallace tried to drive into a tough Rockets defense when no other offensive options existed, but he was called for pushing off on McGrady as he went up for a shot, and that gave the Rockets the ball with 3.5 seconds remaining.
Mike James would be fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass, and although he had a bad night (1-of-3 from the floor for 3 points), he made both free throws to give the Rockets an 85-82 lead with 2.3 seconds left. Battier would intercept the Bobcats’ inbound pass, and the Rockets would escape with an improbable victory to go 6-1.
McGrady deserves credit for being aggressive going to the hole down the stretch, finding his shot (4-of-4 from the field, 4-of-5 from the line), and not turning the ball over in the clutch. He finished with 26 points on a respectable 9-of-20 from the field, and 7-of-9 from the line.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, Yao’s 13-of-15 shooting is unbelievable. Of course, many of those buckets came from teammates helping him get the ball near the rim, so some of the credit goes to them.
Overall, this is the type of offense I have wanted the Rockets to use to deploy Yao’s strengths: a mixture of shots that come from him entering the lane when other players take it to the hoop and dish to him at the last second, or for him to come in and clean up the boards and put up a shot (or get fouled and go to the line where he’s automatic), and some shots to come from those fallaway jumpers where his accuracy has really improved the last few games. Last but not least, for him to shoot the occasional jumper to keep the defense always guessing what he might do next.