I knew that even with Tracy McGrady out of the lineup for Friday night’s game against San Antonio, the Rockets had a very good chance to win, even after one night after the Spurs got beat by the Mavericks on national TV. On paper, the Rockets still have enough talent to beat anyone. But in order to have a shot of beating the Spurs, the Rockets were going to have to play a near perfect game. They didn’t, losing 90-84, and it’s starting to bug me how they are losing.
I can handle the other team winning because they have superior talent, but I don’t like it when you lose because of correctable mistakes. This was the third game in a row where they didn’t do what it takes to win down the stretch. That’s very disappointing considering this is a veteran team being coached by a very experienced coach. What started off as a 6-1 team with a chance to contend for the best record in the West is now turning into a slightly above average team with a 6-4 record, and a tough set of games still coming up.
I understand there were lots of good things to see in this losing effort. Luis Scola finally had his coming-out party, hitting jumper after jumper and scoring a season-high 20 points on 10-of-11 shooting. He’s the real deal, just like we had all thought.
The Rockets have really missed that kind of scoring punch from a power forward, probably dating back to the Charles Barkley era. It was obvious Scola felt more comfortable being assertive Friday night without McGrady in the lineup. That’s not unusual for a rookie, even if he had played pro ball a few years in Europe and Argentina.
Shane Battier also regained some confidence, hitting 6-of-11 shots for 16 points (including 2-of-6 treys), and even took it to the hoop on one possession for a layup. It’s about time he started using that part of his game this season, because he’s actually not bad at it. But I guess when you have a McGrady on your team that does that for you, it’s easy to stay parked behind the 3-point line and kick back on offense.
Mike James got back to his old self, hitting 5-of-10 shots and scoring 10 points. And Luther Head finally got some decent playing time with McGrady out of the lineup. ‘O-fer’ Alston, as always, looked good driving to the hole (and scoring) on a few occasions, but also going through the same gametime ritual of shooting, and missing, the most asinine shots (mainly 3-pointers) you would ever want to see from a guy who has no business shooting them.
Once again, he was 1-for-5 from three-point territory (and Rick Adelman needs to get a clue and tell him to STOP SHOOTING THEM – I’m just not impressed how Adelman is doing nothing to make him stop throwing these bricks. But Alston did make 3-of-5 shots from elsewhere, mainly driving to the hole. He would be a halfway decent point guard if he didn’t shoot those frickin’ threes, like the airball he shot in the fourth quarter with 4:25 and the Spurs leading 80-78.
James, Head and Alston played on the court at the same time occasionally to go “small,” partly to quicken the pace of the offensive flow against the Spurs’ defense, but also because Bonzi Wells was having a rough night against the team he has dominated so frequently, hitting only 1-of-5 shots in the first quarter and 0-for-4 shots in the third quarter. The strategy worked to get them back into their game and move the ball around more quickly. Even the bench got excited on several plays where the guys on the floor were getting things done on offense, and taking charges on defense.
Of course, I can’t leave Yao blameless. He had a terrible night the first three quarters, scoring only 6 points heading into the fourth quarter and being taken out of his game by the Spurs’ fronting defense. It’s easy to do the math and figure if Yao only has 6 points through three quarters and McGrady is not in the game, you’re probably going to lose unless you play perfect. They didn’t.
The Rockets were in the thick of things after Yao hit 2-of-3 shots in the fourth quarter, and down only 82-80 with about 3 minutes remaining. But that’s when those little mistakes in the stretch killed them once again.
On a defensive rebound, Yao didn’t secure the ball well enough and Manu Ginobili stripped it out of his hands, sending Yao to the floor to scramble for it. Unfortunately, Yao got caught using his toe to push the ball to Chuck Hayes, and the refs called him for a kicking violation. I can’t really dispute that call. He did tap it, and Yao was angry about the call.
That play was a killer because it gave the Spurs the ball back, and Michael Finley hit a baseline jumper with 2:46 remaining to make it 84-80, Spurs.
Yao did atone for his mistake by hitting a beautiful fallaway jumper over Tim Duncan to make it 84-82, Spurs. But then Alston “the Enigma” left Tony Parker wide open for a jumper to give the Spurs an 86-82 lead.
Yao responded the other way with another gorgeous, clutch fallaway to cut the deficit to 86-84. After the Spurs’ Brent Barry missed a three-pointer, the Rockets could finally make their move to tie the game. Yao was in his groove and was virtually unstoppable, so you give him the damn ball, right?
Not if you’re Luther Head, who got Alston’s Disease and hoisted a 3-pointer to be a hero rather than giving the ball to Yao who was an easy pass away. That was a crucial mistake that cost them dearly, because after Luther missed that shot, Ginobili weaved his way to the hole and scored on a layup with 57 seconds remaining to give the Spurs an 88-84 lead.
With 46 seconds left in the game, Yao missed a fallaway jumper on the other end, but he actually had an easier shot before that attempt when he had Duncan guarding him alone, but Yao passed it off, then got the ball a couple of seconds later farther away from the basket and hoisted a more difficult shot that missed.
On the other end, Ginobili missed a jumper, but Barry got the rebound and was fouled by Alston. When the Spurs inbounded the ball, Yao fouled Duncan intentionally to send him to the line, and the break the Rockets were looking for happened when Duncan missed both free throws with 25 seconds remaining.
So the Rockets need to score at least 4 points in 25 seconds, and hopefully hold the Spurs scoreless to tie the game, right? So you think they would try to score as quickly as possible, correct? Not if you’re the Rockets, who took way too much time trying to get a shot off, and had to resort to Alston shooting a running teardrop in the lane with 10 seconds left on the game clock, which is about as low percentage for him as a three-pointer.
Of course, that shot missed, and when Yao grabbed the rebound and was trying to lay it in, he was blocked by Duncan, and the ball came down to Parker that essentially was the end of the game.
The Rockets mistakes didn’t just start in crunch time, though. Yao was pretty bad, for him, during the first three quarters, shooting only 3-of-9 from the field and rushing many of his shots, until the fourth quarter when he seemed more measured and took his time. He also didn’t get to the free throw line at all, which is amazing for him.
Give credit to the Spurs’ defense for making it difficult for him to get the ball, but there were a few times early in the game that Yao didn’t even try to get position while his teammates had the ball, including one play early where Chuck Hayes was on the baseline with the ball trapped by a couple of Spurs, and Yao didn’t try to get around Fabricio Oberto to give Hayes a passing option. No one doing anything to help Hayes out resulted in a turnover.
On another possession where the Rockets had tipped a defensive rebound, every Rocket started running up the court (including Yao) when there was no way yet they could determine if they would gain possession of the loose ball. That mistake left Duncan underneath the basket for an easy dunk after the Spurs got possesion of the loose ball. You just can’t make fundamental mistakes like that against the Spurs and get away with it.
Near the end of the second quarter, the Rockets didn’t block out Duncan on a pick-and-roll, leading to an easy score, and then on the very next possession left him wide open as Parker penetrated into the lane and threw a bounce pass to Duncan for another layup. That was 4 quick points that got the Spurs back on the right track when the Rockets could have extended their lead.
In the third quarter, the Rockets left Bruce Bowen wide open for a three-pointer. Last time anyone checked, he’s still pretty good from there. Also in the third, the ball movement they had in the second quarter disappeared, with Battier and Bonzi going one-on-one on consecutive possessions and missing both shot attempts. At the end of the third, Alston tried to throw a very difficult, low-percentage to Bonzi in the post, which was easily intercepted.
In the fourth quarter, the Rockets finally got it going, tying the game at 80-80 thanks to Yao starting to hit some shots, but that’s when they resorted to their old ways to lose it.
So as happy as I should be with Scola and Battier finally having a breakout game and the Rockets doing okay without McGrady in the lineup, I see a bunch of veterans playing bad defense and who don’t know how to close out a game against a very good team. They have proved they can do it against the Milwaukees of the world, but that clutch victory in Utah just a couple of weeks ago seems like eons ago.
Maybe Steve Francis can provide some of the leadership that is needed down the stretch if Adelman will ever play him, but from what I know of Francis’ game watching him play in tight situations over the years, not much probably would have changed in this game. And that’s the scary part – the answers to the Rockets’ woes aren’t necessarily on the bench. They are going to have to get much smarter to win games like these, which is a not an easy thing to change overnight.