I wasn’t too disappointed in the double-overtime loss to Denver last night. I have been saying for a few days now that the objective for the Rockets is to get the 8th seed in the playoffs. Forget about getting home court advantage. The Western Conference is so tough anyway, there isn’t much difference between an 8th-seeded team and a 3rd- or 2nd-seeded one.
It would have been great if the Rockets were at the top of the conference, but since that’s not going to happen this season, the important thing is for the Rockets to try to become a dangerous team that no one wants to play in April and May.
It was really interesting to watch the Rockets move the ball better than they have all season without Tracy McGrady in the lineup. Coincidence, or not? I think we all know the answer to that one.
TNT analyst Magic Johnson even said at halftime what many people have been thinking, but no really has had the balls to say at a national level. When asked the question what the “real problem” was with the Rockets, Magic replied:
“The real problem? You’ve got to trade one of them. Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady’s gotta go.”
You could have heard a pin drop in the studio after that statement. Magic continued:
“It’s not working out. It’s really not working out. We’ve seen it for all these years. They get eliminated in the first round. I thought they were going to play well together. It doesn’t work. Even tonight, I’m seeing the ball move more than I’ve ever seen it move watching a Houston Rocket game. (The ball goes) into Yao Ming, it’s rotating, it swings. But they can’t play together. The ball don’t move when they are together. You would almost have to keep Yao Ming, he’s still going to be the guy who sets the shots up for people. But one of them has to go because it’s not working for me.”
Now that those words have been spoken to a national television audience, it puts the subject out there for all basketball fans to really contemplate if a trade should occur. But more importantly, it puts it out there for GMs from other teams to start thinking more seriously about it. Perhaps that statement will be seen as a breakthrough moment where another team might now say, “Maybe McGrady is now trade-able” compared to GM Daryl Morey’s statement earlier this season where he said McGrady was not on the trading block. It never hurts to have your phone ringing with inquiries.
I’m not advocating that McGrady be traded just yet, but it was nice to see how the Rockets seemed to move the ball without him in the line-up shooting those stupid jumpers (making them or not) that just seems to stagnates the entire flow of the offense.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. If McGrady never took another jump shot the rest of his career, and just attacked the rim and distributed the ball, I would be happy with that. I realize he’s got to shoot a few jumpers to keep the defense honest, so if that’s the case, then maybe allow him to take 4 jumpers per game, and that’s it.
When McGrady is attacking and dishing, he’s extremely effective. But he’s not a big-time shot maker any more. I can’t remember the last time he hit a buzzer-beater to win a game, other than that night when he had that 14-point explosion against San Antonio a couple of years ago.
He’s also not a true leader. I know he was at the game last night in street clothes, but he was nowhere to be seen on the bench when the Rockets were making their run late in the game. Where was he? Was he in the locker room? If he was near the bench, I didn’t see him on his feet, or on the edge of the team huddle during timeouts. Wouldn’t you be with your teammates cheering them along the way? Other players seem to be when they are hurt. I hope I’m wrong and that the cameras just didn’t happen to catch him.
Yao seemed free to lead
You could just tell by watching the game, without McGrady on the court, that Yao was very comfortable as the floor leader. He was the guy who was inspiring his teammates to play at a high level, because there wasn’t much you could say that Yao did wrong.
One of the plays that showed Yao’s leadership was when he was on the edge of the lane posted up, and motioned with his hand to Bonzi Wells to cut into the lane, which he did, and Yao hit him with a perfect pass for a layup! I can’t remember the last time I saw McGrady tell his teammates to move, and jack up an ill-advised jumper instead.
I was disappointed a few times when the other players around Yao would just stand around when he got it into the post. No one was helping him by cutting into the lane. It was like the old Moses Malone days where everyone would just stand on the perimeter and let the Big Man go to work. We know in the long run that’s not going to be very effective. Just look at San Antonio. Does that ever happen when Tim Duncan is in the post? No. Why this coaching staff can’t get the players to stop standing around at times just baffles me.
Back to Yao’s play, though. Sure, he could have hit some big shots at the end of regulation or overtime to win it, but hey, he had played tons of minutes by that time, it was the second night of a back-to-back where he had played 42 minutes the night before, and he was in the mile-high Denver air. I remember when Hakeem Olajuwon needed oxygen anytime he played in Denver because the altitude was so breath-taking. But Yao plowed through it and was still very effective.
Case in point: how about those two big free throws that Yao hit in the second overtime to give them that one-point lead. He was money. Didn’t flinch. Didn’t brick ‘em, like everyone else has seemed to be doing the past few games. He was awesome, finishing the game with 26 points, 19 boards, 6 assists, and 2 blocks.
And did you see that no-look pass he threw to Chuck Hayes for a layup at the 9:54 mark in the third quarter? He was in the high post, dribbled it once toward the basket, then delivered an on-target shovel pass to Hayes on the baseline for the score. It was like his rookie year when he showed just how skilled of a passer he is. I still get chills down my spine thinking about that play last night.
And how about that beautiful fallaway jumper he hit at the 3:06 mark in the second overtime to give them a 106-103 lead? That shot had TNT analyst Doug Collins amazed and awestruck.
As you probably know by now, Denver’s Anthony Carter hit a floater in the lane to give the Nuggets a 112-111 lead with .8 seconds remaining. He pumped fake at the top of the key to get Bonzi to bite, took a couple of steps in to avoid Wells swiping at the ball in mid-air, and floated a long teardrop that hit nothing but net.
And how about that shot near the end of the third quarter where the Rockets were down 71-64, but Yao got fouled as he was going up for a shot, and was still able to muscle in the shot for the score? He calmly went to the line to hit the penalty free throw to make it 71-67, single-handedly keeping the Rockets in the game at that time. You could just sense the Denver crowd knew they were watching a very special athlete. It has to be truly inspirational to his teammates, kind of reminiscent of Hakeem when he willed his team back into a game. It was at that time my sub-conscious started uttering the phrase, “In Yao we trust.”
I know coach Rick Adelman wasn’t happy with how Bonzi got faked out by the pump fake, and I know that getting pump faked isn’t fundamental basketball. But the way I look at it, it forced Carter to try to make a very difficult shot once he saw he had to get the ball off as the game clock was getting closer to zero.
If you think about it, there aren’t many guards who could have reliably hit that shot, especially any Rocket guard. So maybe it was better to let a reserve who was 2-for-7 from at the time take that shot, rather than force Carter give it up to someone who is more a clutch shooter, like Carmelo Anthony.
And if Bonzi hadn’t been pump faked in the air, Carter would have been faced with a standing, face-up jump shot, which in my opinion is more high-percentage. Getting pump-faked into the air seems to be much worse when it happens much closer to the basket, and when you foul the shooter. That wasn’t the case this particular time. Either way, Carter hit a big shot and you have to give him credit for making the shot.
But even with the outcome, I am very encouraged by the Rockets’ play overall. Here’s my breakdown of some of the key players.
Luther Head was fantastic, scoring 22 points, dishing 6 assists, and hitting 5-of-10 three-pointers. The clutch three-pointer he hit at the end of regulation to tie the score at 94-94 was probably one of the biggest shots of the season by any Rocket since Shane Battier’s three early in the season against the Lakers to win that game at the buzzer.
Head also did a good job getting the ball into Yao in the post, and even penetrated into the lane for some of those 6 assists.
The down side is that he had way too many turnovers, including two in a row where he traveled on one possession and then pushed off on Allen Iverson the next possession for a charge. Why Idleman has him dribbling the ball in certain situations doesn’t make much sense to me, especially when point guard Rafer Alston is in the game with him.
But at least Head is stepping up more than the other shooting guards the Rockets have tried this season, including Steve Francis, Mike James, and Kirk Snyder. If Luther hadn’t had such a poor playoff series against Utah last season, I think everyone would have been stoked about Luther’s potential this season. But since he kind of blended in with the woodwork during those playoffs, and since no one else has grabbed the position convincingly this season, Head now has a second chance and he’s proving his worth.
All I know is that none of the 3 aforementioned players can pout and complain they haven’t had a chance. If anything, the off-court chemistry can’t be as bad as what had been anticipated before the season began because they have all had their chances and haven’t done much with it.
For example, after a decent game against Orlando on Wednesday night, Mike James was only 1-for-5 in the first half while Denver made a 10-0 run to get back into the game and take the lead. After that stretch, he didn’t get any playing time the rest of the game.
Luckily Rick Adelman gave more minutes to Aaron Brooks, and boy, did it pay off (as we all expected it would). Brooks was awesome, scoring 8 points in 14 minutes on 4-of-9 shooting, with most of those points coming at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth when he scored 6 points in a row. I loved the play at the 10:57 mark in the fourth quarter when he took it to the hole and scored off the glass, and then a few minutes later dribbled in the paint to score on a layup to give Houston an 80-79 lead. What a luxury it was to have that kind of speed in the line-up, as well as confidence. I don’t understand why Brooks didn’t get more playing time Thursday night based on his productivity, but at least he showed he will definitely get awarded more minutes in upcoming games.
Rafer Alston was, as usual, good and bad. First, the good. He hit three 3-pointers, had 10 assists, and scored 18 points (remember it was a 2OT game, though). Anytime he does that, it’s all good. The problem is that he was 3-for-9 from three-point territory. He also had 5 turnovers, including a push-off on Iverson like Head had done. I can understand a 3-year player like Head getting duped by Iverson, but for a seasoned veteran like Alston to get Iverson to tempt him to push-off…that shouldn’t happen.
Then late in the game, Iverson easily blew by Alston for a huge layup to make it 91-87. It was just too easy.
Bonzi Wells had his second productive game in a row, scoring 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting and grabbing 8 boards. He needs to work on the free throws, though, making only 2-of-4. However, I loved the play with 4:27 remaining in regulation – with one second left on the shot clock – he inbounded the ball to Luther underneath the basket for a layup, making it 87-85, Denver with the lead. The guy is a pretty smart baller.
Bonzi also cut into the lane several times to score down low – something the Rockets need with McGrady out — and hit a big jumper with 1:40 remaining in regulation to make it 94-89.
Then on the very next possession with 1:08 remaining, he missed a shot over Anthony, but crashed the boards, grabbed the rebound, and scored on a layup. Anthony did a bad job in blocking out, and Bonzi made him pay. Bonzi is just too difficult of a matchup to not have him in the game late. When he’s on, he’s a very useful weapon they have to use.
Shane Battier’s shooting percentage wasn’t all that great – 4-of-12 from the field, and 3-of-9 from three-point land, for 12 points. But those three-pointers he hit were big ones, hitting two of them in the overtime periods, with the second one coming with 36 seconds remaining in the second OT to give the Rockets a 109-108 lead. The shot clock was winding down, and he hit it from the top of the three-point line, standing about 3 feet behind it. It was good to see Battier hitting a clutch shot like that. Hopefully that will get his confidence going to hit big shots the rest of the season.
The main bad thing that Battier did was fouling Anthony (intentionally) way too early with 4.5 seconds remaining in the game. The Rockets had a foul to give, so his foul only let a half second ticked off the clock. There was no way that Anthony would have been able to get off a decent shot after he grabbed the inbounds pass out high beyond the three-point line with his back facing the basket. Battier should have let Anthony dribble and foul him a second later. As it turns out, those 4 seconds the Nuggets had on the clock were just enough time for Carter to pump fake Bonzi and hit the game winner. For Battier being such a smart player, when he makes mistakes, they seem to be big ones.
A word about the Rockets’ team rebounding: on several possessions the Rockets were out-hustled on the offensive boards, including one where the Nuggets grabbed 4 offensive boards in a row. The Nuggets wanted the ball more than the Rockets multiple times, and for some reason they forgot about Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony as he crashed the boards for dunks. Overall, the Rockets were out-rebounded 27-13 on the offensive boards. Terrible.
Now we’ll see how the Rockets bounce back from this loss when they face Chicago. I’ve got to think they are encouraged that several of their players got going, like Luther, Shane, Bonzi and Brooks. And also that Yao was the clear leader of the team without McGrady around. If it were up to me, I would give McGrady as much rest as possible so we can see if they continue to improve without him.