What else can be said other than the obvious? Although they were playing against a struggling 8-20 Memphis team, the Rockets played very well Friday night in the absence of the injured Tracy McGrady, and beat the Grizzlies soundly 103-83.
It was another good performance by the Rockets without McGrady around (remember the 2OT game against Denver last week where the Rockets played pretty well?), and you’ve got to think it’s not just a coincidence.
As much as I see on Internet Web sites comments from Rocket fans saying McGrady should be traded, I have been a little more conservative on that notion (shocking, huh?) because I have thought if McGrady doesn’t go crazy with stupid jump shots, he can still be a very effective weapon.
But I think there is something even better that’s happening when the Rockets play without him. Unlike last year, other players now seem to be stepping up in his absence. Part of the reason is because the talent on this roster that the front office has assembled seems much more comfortable stepping out from behind McGrady’s shadow.
As in that Denver game last week, the Rockets moved the ball around, making it easier to hit all kinds of shots. Without McGrady, the Rockets shot 48.3% from the field and hit 8-of-21 threes. Not that they have played much worse when McGrady has been in the lineup lately, but I would guess there’s probably a 10-20% boost in energy and movement in the offense when he’s not playing. That’s still a huge increase that can win you a lot more games in a very evenly-matched league.
Let’s look at the players who played well without McGrady around:
Yao Ming was solid, scoring 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, grabbing 12 boards, blocking 5 shots, and dishing 3 dimes. He would have had more if the refs hadn’t blown a couple of calls that got him in foul trouble and limited him to only 33 minutes. I loved all the dunks he had in this game as opposed to trying to lay it in off the glass like he has done so much in the past.
Shane Battier ratcheted up his game, scoring a season-high 18 points against his former team on 6-of-9 shooting (3-of-4 from three-point land), grabbing 7 boards, and getting 2 steals. For at least one day, Battier quieted the critics (including me, at times) who have been saying lately the Rockets should have never traded the rights to Rudy Gay for him. Meanwhile, Gay only scored 8 points on 3-of-13 shooting.
This wasn’t the first time that Luis Scola played well without McGrady in the rotation. Scola was absolutely fantastic, scoring a career-high 22 points on 11-of-17 shooting using a variety of sweet moves in the lane and jumpers that hit nothing but net. He also grabbed 5 boards and had 2 steals. It’s amazing he’s that polished in the lane, while having such great shooting form from the outside.
But before Scola started inflicting damage on the Grizzlies in the second half, the guy who really lit a fire under the Rockets attack was my boy, rookie Aaron Brooks. Brooks continues to show how his supporters knew what they were talking about when Rick Idleman wasn’t playing him near enough this season, until recently.
Brooks scored 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, but it was when he scored them that made it impressive. It wasn’t during garbage time when the game was well in hand. They came at crucial times. In the first half, he hit two 3-pointers that we’ve all been waiting for him to hit, considering we’ve heard he might just be the best 3-point shooter on the team. He also was extremely active and quick in moving without the ball, which is such a breath of fresh air to see in the Rockets attack. He made his defender work in trying to keep up with him, which is almost impossible. It’s such a thing of beauty to watch.
Brooks also threw some beautiful passes for assists, finishing with 7 dimes (you can read more about some of these assists in the “Bonus coverage” section below).
You could just tell Brooks’ quickness and energy gave the Rockets a boost, and even put a jolt of electricity into the bench wondering what he would do next. God knows we’ve all been waiting for a point guard that strikes fear in opposing teams’ defenders, and I believe that’s what the Rockets now finally have. It was almost like watching a younger Allen Iverson Friday night. Can you imagine if the Rockets had a budding A.I. on their team? Brooks play 21 minutes Friday night, and should be getting even more.
The only downside to Brooks’ performance was that he got caught standing flat-footed on defensive rebounds, letting his man, 6’ guard Kyle Lowry, come around him and grab two offensive rebounds for put-back buckets. As much as Brooks hustles on offense, he could use that same energy on the defensive side of the ball when he’s near the rim and needs to block out his man.
The only other downside to the Rockets was Rafer Alston‘s poor start, turning the ball over 3 times in the first quarter and going 0-for-4 from the field, and 1-for-8 after heaving up an airball at the beginning of the second half. Alston would hit 3 of his next 5 shots to finish with 10 points, which was the same number of points that Brooks scored.
But if you look at the boxscore, you’ll see that Brooks was more efficient. In Brooks’ 21 minutes compared to Alston’s 29, Brooks was 4-of-8 compared to Alston’s 4-of-13. Brooks had one more rebound than Alston (3 to 2), but more importantly, he had 7 assists compared to Alston’s 6. Finally, the big stat: 4 TOs for Alston, and only 1 for Brooks.
If Rick Idleman is smart, you’ll see Brooks take even more minutes from Alston. It’s a pretty easy decision. But we’ve said that before this season, only to be surprised by alarming conservatism.
Finally, the guy you think who would have scored a bunch of points starting in McGrady’s absence – Bonzi Wells – would have scored more than 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting, but in a game where just about everyone seized the opportunity to touch (and shoot) the ball without McGrady in the game, Bonzi’s performance can be more easily forgiven.
It will be really interesting to see if the Rockets offense continues to hum without McGrady Saturday night as the Rockets play the Toronto Raptors at Toyota Center. Toronto beat the Spurs in San Antonio Friday night, so they are no slouch. It should be a good test.
I don’t know about you, but it’s starting to get fun watching Rockets games again, especially when you have young studs like Brooks and Scola in the game to really diversify their attack.
Okay, here is that bonus coverage I mentioned earlier. I know this may be a little dry to read, but here are some of my favorite moments from the game in chronological order:
4:54 – Battier plays great D on Rudy Gay as Gay drove to the rack, making him miss
3:38 – From the baseline corner, Battier takes it to the hole with only a few seconds on the shot clock, draws Darko Milicic to him, then Battier dishes to Yao in front of the rim for the jam! Beautiful. 18-13
2:46 – Bonzi banks it high off the glass on a turnaround jumper. 20-15
:20.6 – Brooks dishes to Scola on a difficult, but beautiful, pass for a layup! 22-15
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies miss their last 8 shots in the quarter.
10:35 – Scola takes it strong to the hole, and Yao tips it in! That’s the beauty about Scola. Unlike Chuck Hayes, when Scola is aggressive offensively, even if he misses, he helps Yao get garbage buckets. 26-18
9:41 – Brooks hits a three! 29-20
8:53 – Luther Head hits a tough jumper! 31-20
8:15 – From behind the 3-point line, Brooks make Darko pay by not guarding Yao and passes to Yao, who is wide open by the rim, and Yao throws it down! What a great dish! 33-22
7:16 – Brooks hits another three! 36-24. He was so quick moving without the ball before getting the pass and hitting that shot. He’s looking great!
3:45 – Memphis has gone on a 13-2 run to make it 38-37, but Alston hits a three-pointer to make it 41-37
2:46 – Alston blows a layup, but Scola tips it in. 43-39
:57 – Scola takes it down low, and scores on a nifty move! 46-43
:33.5 – Bonzi scores on a layup. Great ball movement without McGrady in there. 48-43
:1.7 – Luther hits a long two. 50-43
At halftime, Rockets lead 50-43. Rudy Gay has no points.
11:25 – Bonzi tips a ball away as his man is bringing the ball up the court, Alston picks up the loose ball and throws a no-look pass up court to Bonzi, who catches the ball and avoids a block by going underneath the rim for a layup. 52-43
9:00 – Rafer hits a three. 57-46
8:28 – Battier hits a three. 60-46
6:26 – Hayes dishes from the high post to Yao for a dunk! Great pass by Hayes! And Yao is fouled! 65-55 after Yao makes the FT!
3:42 – Battier tips in a missed shot by Yao in mid-air. Great hustle play!
3:18 – Bonzi finds Yao on a great pass down low. 74-60. 9-2 Houston run.
1:37 – Scola hits a jumper. 76-63
:34.8 – Scola hits another off the glass. 78-65
4th quarter – 78-65, Rockets lead.
11:21 – Brooks finds Battier with a great cross-court pass, and Battier drills the three! 18 points for Battier. Great on-the-money pass to Battier from Brooks!
10:42 – Scola hits a jumper. 83-67
9:36 – Scola, beautiful up-and-under scoop shot for a basket! 85-70.
9:15 – Yao hits a fallaway. 87-70
8:34 – Scola steals the ball from Lowry, then before he goes out of bounds, knocks it off Lowry for the TO. What hustle!
8:10 – Luther hits a three! 90-72
7:39 – Brooks blows by everyone for a layup! 92-72
4:52 – Scola scores on some great moves down low for a layup. He’s unstoppable!
4:15 – Scola hits a jumper! 97-79
1:23 – Yao blocks Stromile at the baseline!
:33.2 – Brooks hits a teardrop! That was Tony Parker-esque. This guy can score a variety of ways! Unbelievable!