The Rockets found a way to win their second game in a row without Tracy McGrady and go 15-15 on the season, beating the Toronto Raptors 91-79. It wasn’t a pretty win, but when the Rockets needed to get over the hump in the fourth quarter, Yao Ming was The Man. In a stretch of about 5 minutes, Yao scored 8 points to help put the game away
At the 6:43 mark in the fourth, Yao calmly hit a turnaround jumper to make it 76-70. On the next possession, he elevated for a jump shot from just outside the left side of the lane, double-pumped in the air (pictured above), then threw up a shot that rattled on the rim a couple of times and dropped through to make it 78-72. When you’ve got a soft shooting touch, you’re going to get some nice bounces on the rim that will fall your way.
Then at the 5:39 mark, Yao did his favorite spin move on the baseline against Rasho Nesterovic, and Rasho fouled him. Yao went to the line and made both free throws to make it 80-72.
On the ensuing Raptor possession, Yao showed he wasn’t all about offense. Chris Bosh made a strong move to the hole, but Yao was able to get there in time to draw a charge! That play got the Houston bench on their feet applauding Yao for sacrificing his body.
A short time later with 4:21 remaining, Yao went baseline again, this time on Kris Humphries, and was fouled again. Yao would step to the line and hit both free throws to make it 82-74.
Finally, at the 2:30 mark, Yao turned baseline again, this time on Bosh, then spun away from the baseline to draw 4 different Raptors to him since they thought he would go up for a shot from underneath the rim. That’s when Yao astutely kicked the ball out to Luther Head wide open behind the three-point line, and Luther drilled it! That made it 85-75. I hadn’t seen that many players converge on a Rocket player since the Hakeem Olajuwon days, and makes you realize just how much other NBA teams respect Yao as an offensive weapon.
About a minute later Shane Battier sealed the win with a three-pointer from 3 feet behind the arc to make it 88-77. For good measure, Rafer Alston hit his fifth three-pointer of the game with 5.2 seconds remaining, a ‘garbage’ three, for the final points of the game to make it 91-79.
Until that fourth quarter when the Rockets made their move, the Rockets and Raptors were in a slugfest as both teams shot horribly. Houston finished the game shooting 39.5% while Toronto shot 37%, and that was an improvement from their halftime shooting when both teams only shot 37%, and were knotted up at 40-40 at the half. It was enough to make you want to change the channel and watch the historic New England Patriots quest to go 16-0 in their season, but I stuck with the game, and when Yao turned it on late, it made it all worth it.
It was also worth seeing Rafer Alston have one of his best games this season. After playing poorly the night before when he was only 4-for-13 and had 4 turnovers, he was a difference maker by hitting 5-of-6 three-pointers and 6-of-12 overall for 18 points. That means he was only 1-of-6 from inside the 3-point line, missing several layups, which isn’t unusual for him. But at least he made up for it with the 5 threes, and he only had one turnover.
So you’ve got 25 points for Yao and 18 points for Alston. Unlike the night before where the Rockets had 6 guys finish with double-digit scoring, they had 5 players this time contribute significant points, and that was Luther Head, Battier, and Bonzi Wells. Head and Battier together made 5-of-13 three-pointers and scored 13 and 10 points, respectively. Combine that with Alston’s 5 treys, and you’ve got a very good 10-of-22 shooting from behind the arc compared to Toronto’s 2-of-10. Those threes, the Rockets 23 assists compared to the Raptors 18, and 17-of-19 free throws made versus Toronto’s 9-of-17, was really the difference.
Battier had one of the most exciting plays we’ve seen from him in a long time that wasn’t a three-pointer. After Alston hit a three with just a few seconds remaining before halftime, Battier store Toronto’s inbounds pass at half court, and then with the knowledge that he had to do something quick before time expired, he took it strong to the hole, elevated, and with his right arm, extended the ball away from a Chris Bosh block attempt, scooped it under Bosh’s arm “Dr. J” style and laid it off the glass for the score! Battier should do that more often! That hustle play and acrobatic move tied the game at 40-40 headed into halftime.
By that time, if you looked at the boxscore you’d see that no player had double-digit points (I wonder if that has ever happened in an NBA game before?), and only Battier and Toronto’s Jamario Moon had more than two field goals (they both had 3 each). Bonzi had two field goals, but he had missed 9 others for a hideous 2-of-11 shooting.
But there’s something about Bonzi’s misses that aren’t as maddening as other players who would miss that many shots. Even if Bonzi misses, he doesn’t give up and just seems to keep attacking the rim, unlike another player on the team (cough cough). And if Bonzi misses, he’s always strong on the boards, which he was Saturday night as he finished with 10 rebounds. He also can hurt you with his passing, as he did Saturday with 5 assists. From the field, Bonzi would finish 4-of-17 overall for 13 points, with 2 of those second-half field goals coming off dunks.
One of those dunks came off a beautiful pass from Yao, who threw an overhead bullet pass from behind the three-point line to Bonzi down low for a one-handed slam to make it 46-44. The other dunk came when Chuck Hayes, from the high post, dropped a pass off to Bonzi down low for a dunk. That was the second time in as many nights where Hayes played the high post and delivered a pass down low for an easy shot. As offensively challenged as Hayes is, he’s actually not that bad of a passer.
Heading into the third quarter, Yao had played an incredible 23 out of 24 minutes, and you had to wonder why coach Rick Adelman had decided to play Yao so many minutes early on, especially on the second night of a back-to-back. That had to be a record for Yao.
The third quarter was fairly uneventful, except for a few plays like Yao’s aforementioned pass to Bonzi for a dunk.
Things stayed fairly close until the fourth quarter when the Rockets made their move to get separation from the Raptors. At the 7:30 mark, Luis Scola hit one of his beautiful, high trajectory jumpers that hit nothing but net to make it 74-70. After that, Yao went to work to put the game away as I described earlier.
On the Aaron Brooks front, he only played 14 minutes and made 2-of-7 shots, with one of those scores coming off a sweet reverse from underneath the rim that made you say, “How did he do that?” and another one coming off a fast break where he jetted to the basket for a layup off a fast break led by Alston. You can tell the Toyota Center crowd has come to expect very exciting things from Brooks anytime he takes it strong to the hole. As disappointing as the Rockets’ season has been thus far, you can tell Rocket fans are still watching since they seem to understand what Brooks can do.
Now the Rockets have won 2 in a row in a back-to-back situation, the first time they have done since March 2006, and are back to the .500 mark at 15-15. We’ll see if McGrady’s probable return on Monday against Golden State will mess up the Rockets’ flow to hit as many three-pointers like they did on Saturday night, and general improvement in moving the ball.
Speaking of McGrady, why doesn’t he sit on the bench when he’s injured and not cheer his teammates on when almost every other injured player in the league does that? Damn, even injured T.J. Ford was on the bench in street clothes for the Raptors. Is it too “beneath” McGrady to be with his teammates when he can’t play? He’s really starting to bug me. It may not be strong enough grounds to be traded, but you just wish he would be more professional about what he says and does.