Well, it didn’t take too long for Rocket fans who have been calling for Steve Francis to get quality minutes all season to prove to the head coach they were right all along.
Francis got significant minutes on Wednesday night against the Suns in Phoenix, and he was an important reason why they pulled out a big 100-94 win.
Francis provided a spark by scoring 9 quality points in 27 minutes. All of his buckets were huge at the time because for every shot he made, you knew it was going to force Adelman to give him more minutes in upcoming games, like most Rocket fans have been saying for weeks now.
But those shots he made did another thing – it made Rafer Alston realize that Francis is breathing right down his neck for playing time, and it paid off right away. Alston played much better on offense in this game, but believe me, it’s a fluke because Alston will always be a streak shooter. We’ll get to him more in a minute. Let me finish up on Francis.
Francis also had 7 assists for very meaningful and different kinds of buckets. I wish I could describe all of them, but there just isn’t enough time given how late the game started and ended.
Francis was also active on defense by blocking Shawn Marion in the middle of the fourth quarter when the Rockets were trying to hold the Suns off from making a late charge. He also stripped Amare Stoudemire of the ball in the final seconds of the game that resulted in a big Suns turnover, although it was questionable if he fouled him or not.
As much as we slam Adelman for being blind by playing Alston so much and for so long without giving any significant playing time to Francis, we have to give credit to Adelman for getting into the heads of his players to move the ball around like we’ve all been waiting for.
So when the game was in its last few minutes and was still close, I couldn’t wait to see how the offense would handle the pressure. That’s because we really didn’t get a glimpse of it during their blowout wins against the Nuggets or Clippers in their last two games because they weren’t close down the stretch at all.
I tracked each possession late in this game, and the Rockets actually did much better, moving the ball and getting high-percentage shots, including an important open hook shot by Yao that made it 96-92 with 1:08 remaining. Throughout the game Yao got the ball many times where he had room to operate rather than being double or triple-teamed, several times resulting from the rest of his teammates being patient to have him re-post with better position.
Yao rewarded his teammates with their patience by scoring a game-high 31 points on 12-of-19 shooting, grabbing 13 rebounds, and blocking two shots. Against a team with whom he’s struggled against frequently, Yao played with confidence, hitting his shots from all over the court, including hustling down the court for a throw-down dunk after getting a dish from Tracy McGrady on a fast break.
He also scored on a jumper from 18-feet out, hit jump hooks in the lane, fallaway jumpers, and a spin move on the baseline for a dunk. You name it, and he did it. Let’s hope his teammates don’t revert back to settling for long jump shots, and instead continue to get him the ball in the right places to avoid the double- and triple-teams.
And give credit to Adelman for giving important minutes to Francis late in the game. With Francis, they have a very valuable commodity late in the game they haven’t had much of lately: another penetrator (in addition to McGrady) who can get to the hole and either MAKE a shot close-up, or create space to create shots for others. And that’s exactly what Francis did when he took Steve Nash 1-on-1 deep into the lane, then threw up a wild shot (as crazy looking as it was) that banked off the glass and dropped for a bucket that made it 98-94 with :29.9 remaining. That was the play of the game.
With Francis doing so well, he put pressure on Alston to play better, perhaps out of fear of losing minutes, and Alston responded on offense by hitting 3-of-5 three-pointers, and 6-of-11 shots for 15 points. I say good for him, but it still doesn’t excuse Adelman waiting so long to get Francis into games to push Alston competitively.
Now the Houston announcers will tell you how great Rafer has been playing the past two games (he scored 17 points on Monday night against the Clippers), but there is one part of his game that absolutely sucked (as usual), and that was defending the other team’s point guard. There were 3 times in the first half where he couldn’t keep up with Steve Nash around picks that would result in jump shots, or just leaving him wide open for jump shots. That’s 6 points they could have prevented from happening.
There are a few other things the Rockets will need to do much better in addition to what I mentioned earlier. Those things include:
• McGrady needs to get with the program and make his free throws. He made only 3-of-8 Wednesday night, and he missed 5-of-15 on Monday night. That will come back to haunt them eventually.
• Near the end of the first quarter, McGrady took Houston’s last 6 shots. That’s not enough balance. Other than that, I did like how McGrady seemed to attack the rim, not settle for too many jumpers, and he finished with 18 points on 19 field goal attempts. Add the 5 free throws he missed, and he would have scored 23 points. He also had 6 assists. I can handle those numbers, because that means other players are getting an opportunity to keep the opposing defenses off balance.
• Chuck Hayes left Shawn Marion wide open for two 3-pointers, collapsing down in the paint and letting a pretty good shooter kill them with 6 points. Everyone says how great Hayes is on defense, and that may be true when he’s defending a guy close, but when he’s helping out his teammates on defense, he sometimes ignores his man way too much. Later Marion would burn a different Rocket defender for a three-pointer. Can someone coaching the players let them know they can’t leave Marion that wide-open, no matter how bad the form is on his shot?
Outside of that, the refs were awful, letting players get away with assault and battery. Finally, don’t let the announcers fool you by saying the Rockets’ defense was the main reason the Suns only shot 41.5%. Their defense was good, but the Suns missed lots of open shots. We all know that can happen to Houston at any time, with the Suns being human, too.
Looking ahead to Thursday night, the Rockets play the Warriors at Golden State on a back-to-back. The Warriors beat the Suns pretty handily the other night. So as good as the Rockets played on offense against the Suns, from what I saw with the holes in their defense (with Nash and Marion), I don’t think there’s any way the Rockets can stop the Warriors enough to win. That should end their current 3-game winning streak. I’m not being a pessimist, just a realist.
The one thing I always look forward to seeing (and hearing) Thursday night is the roar of the crowd in Oakland when Yao does anything well, like hit a shot or just make a free throw. The Asian-American fans in the Bay Area come out in droves to support the Big Man.