At first I was upset how the Rockets couldn’t make a shot and blew an early 16-5 lead to let a struggling Orlando team beat them 97-92 Wednesday night. This is a Magic team that had lost 5 of their last 6 games, and in their past 7 games their defense was atrocious, giving up a whopping 107.3 points per game.
So their coming to Houston was just what the doctor ordered, with Houston hitting only 28% of their shots by halftime, 34% overall, and scoring 15 points on average below everyone else who has played Orlando the past 7 games.
But now that I’m a realist and have come to the conclusion that this Rockets team is going to be mediocre for awhile, it’s time to start thinking how the Rockets can salvage this season. Forget about going deep in the playoffs. For me, the goal for this team is to make a late, strong run to get at least the 8th playoff seed, get their offense humming, their defense back to par, and then acquire a few key pieces in the off-season to make a stronger push next season.
Speaking of pieces, did everyone see how Memphis’ Rudy Gay scored 21 points Wednesday night against San Antonio, including a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win it? I know many of you would love to reverse that Shane Battier-for-Gay trade now. But here’s a question for you – not considering matching salary considerations, with all things being equal, would you trade Tracy McGrady today for Gay and 2 non-starting Grizzly players of your choice?
Sorry for digressing. Back to Wednesday’s game, where the bad shooting continued, not helped at all by McGrady’s continued and astounding emphasis on shooting jumpers. I don’t really care if his knee was hurting – that’s no excuse to be settling mainly on jump shots and three-pointers, with him making only 1 of those jumpers before he left the game for good because of his knee. 10% shooting is not going to cut it.
And if the excuse is that he’s hurt and that’s the only kind of shot he can take comfortably, then you either don’t play him, or you let him shoot a few jumpers, then pull him if he doesn’t make, say, about four of them. But to wait until shot number 10 to pull him while he’s hurt? That’s way too late.
Not that the rest of the team was shooting much better. If you take McGrady’s stats out of the mix in the first half, the other players were shooting 33%. That’s pathetic, too, but at least if you take away the 9 shots that McGrady missed and estimate the other players would have made 3 or 4 of those, then the Rockets wouldn’t have been trailing 44-40 at halftime. They would have been leading by two, or four, points.
The only player who was shooting worth a damn in the first half was, believe it or not, Rafer Alston. In the first half, Alston was 4-for-6, and 3-of-4 from three-point range (but he was 1-of-7 the rest of the way). However, if Alston scores 15 in a game, the Rockets’ chances to win go up tremendously. The problem was that with McGrady not being able to drive to the basket, get some layups, get fouled, or create shots for other players, you have about a 10 to 14 point deficiency in the halftime boxscore right there that you have to make up somewhere else.
Too bad the Rockets couldn’t have capitalized more off the 5 turnovers Orlando had in the first 8 minutes, or their shooting 0-of-5 from three-point territory to start the game. Eventually after the Rockets took an early 16-5 lead, the Rockets’ offense stopped, shooting only 30% as a team as Orlando went on a 13-0 run in the second quarter to take the lead for good.
The other problem was that Yao Ming was having a bad night, too, making only 3-of-9 shots in the first half. In the second half, he made only 1 of his first 5 shots, but finished strong by hitting 3-of-4 shots to finish 7-of-18 for 19 points, and was 5-of-8 from the free throw line. Not a great night shooting, maybe two shots less than he would normally make, and just 6 points below his season average. He also racked up two assists, one being a gorgeous pass in the third quarter from the high post to Bonzi Wells down low for a layup. He drew at least 2 defenders to him out high, which opened things up for Wells to score.
Battier was great from three-point territory, hitting 3-of-7 treys, but he missed all three of his 2-point attempts (not unusual). Luther Head, the “best shooter” on the team as of a week ago, was a terrible 1-of-7 from the field.
Head’s best play occurred in the second quarter when the Rockets ran one of their slickest fast breaks of the season. Alston whipped a pass to Head, who was streaking up the court, then Head on the dead run immediately threw a no-look pass to Bonzi for a dunk. That play got everyone at Toyota Center on their feet, all the players pumped up, and everyone wondering why they couldn’t do that more often?
The other bugaboo was the Rockets missing easy layups throughout the game, which isn’t unusual. Alston missed at least 2 easy layups, as did Luis Scola and McGrady after rookie Aaron Brooks dished them perfect passes down low, but they blew easy buckets.
Then add in the missing of 10 free throws (21-of-31 from the line), and it was just too much to overcome.
Incredibly, though, the Rockets did make a run in the fourth quarter to come back from 12 points at the beginning of the quarter to pull within one point. But in the Rockets’ final possession, down by 3 points and needing a three-pointer to tie it, the Rockets had no imagination in getting the ball to a 3-point shooter for an open look. Instead, a couple of ball handlers dribbled it several feet behind the 3-point line trying to figure out how to find someone open for the shot before Head heaved a difficult shake-and-bake 3-point attempt that fell short. The play looked like the Keystone Cops out there. And this was the play they ran after a timeout when they had a chance to talk about the kind of play they were going to run. Was that the best they could come up with?
Other than that bungled effort, I did like what I saw in the fourth quarter. The Rockets went ‘small’ in that quarter, playing Mike James, Head, Alston, and Wells, and were fairly effective. Even Houston analyst Matt Bullard said after the game, “The Rockets looked pretty good without him (McGrady).”
James, who has been MIA since that winning streak at the beginning of the season, was the sparkplug off the bench to really help get the offense going. He scored 7 points in the fourth quarter, taking the ball aggressively to the hole and either scoring, getting fouled, or dishing an assist. He also had 4 dimes in less than 5 minutes of action, hit a three-pointer, and threw a beautiful full-court pass to Bonzi after an Orlando turnover for a dunk. He even set a nice pick that allowed Bonzi to score on a nice backdoor play.
What I liked about James was his aggressiveness. As they were inching closer to the Magic, he kept the pressure on and didn’t disappear like a lot of other players seem to do. He was the type of player the Rockets got excited about when they acquired him in the off-season. If he can recapture that magic this season like he showed in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night, watch out.
Yao was also the key to the comeback. Although he was having a rough night, he started hitting shots in that fourth quarter, and what I really liked is how he was very strong on the boards (17 overall), grabbing offensive rebounds after guys like Bonzi drove into the lane, missed, with Yao there to clean up the mess on a couple of occasions in the fourth quarter and score very important buckets on put-back shots.
That’s exactly the kind of activity I like to see Yao doing when he’s not taking his own shot – be underneath the boards to grab the offensive rebound, and either put it back in, get fouled, or both. Unfortunately, when McGrady is in the offense, McGrady doesn’t seem to do that nearly enough as he should – attacking the rim where good things can happen like Yao grabbing the rebound and scoring or getting fouled. Instead, he keeps settling for too many damn outside shots. Is McGrady that big of a ‘star’ to Rick Idle-man that he is too afraid to tell McGrady that he should cut down on his jumpers, especially late in games or anytime during a game where they aren’t falling?
Alston also scored 4 points in that fourth quarter, including 2 big free throws. But he made two crucial mistakes down the stretch that could have really helped the Rockets’ cause when he missed a point-blank layup, and let a pass from Mike James go right through his hands out of bounds. It kind of reminded me of many of those times where Alston gets the ball near the sideline, takes it to the hole, but a ref calls him for having his back foot go out-of-bounds as he made his move. Although his turnover-to-assist ratio is low, he just seems to make some big mistakes in crunch time, which you can’t afford to have from your point guard.
Even though McGrady may be out of the lineup for a few games, I’m okay with that. Last season I said the same thing after he hurt his back. I thought it would be good for the Rockets to diversify their attack while he was out, but they didn’t really have the horses to carry it out, and they lost a bunch of games. But this year could be different based on a couple of glimmers of hope that we saw Wednesday (besides Mike James), and that was Bonzi and Brooks.
Bonzi was fantasic in hitting 7-of-14 shots to score 17 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, dished 3 assists and had 2 steals. With Bonzi filling in admirably in McGrady’s spot (more or less), James got more playing time. So if Bonzi and James can score 25 points or more between them a night (they scored 26 against Orlando), and a couple of other players can step up besides Yao, like Scola, Battier, Head, or Alston, then things could get very interesting.
It can also get interesting if Aaron Brooks continues to get into the lane like he did a couple of times in his very short 3-minute stint. Idle-man just needs to play him more, and McGrady’s injury may help everyone get more minutes, especially Brooks, James and Bonzi.
So take as long as you need to rest up, McGrady. I want to see what this team can do when it’s forced to rely on the other talents it has on the roster when it can step out from behind his shadow. I know that experience didn’t go too well last season, but something tells me there is too much skill on this roster that could come out from hibernation if given the chance. If I’m wrong, at least I’ll have the peace of mind before the Rockets start trading players that these guys had their chance under multiple scenarios — with McGrady in the lineup, and without.