It’s kind of strange to write about a Rockets win on the road that came fairly easily, this time in Washington against the Wizards. The Rockets won 92-84 in a game where they led by as much as 14 points. Sure, it got close at times, but the Rockets always found a way to keep the Wizards at arms length most of the way. Their defense was fantastic, holding them to just 41% shooting, and the out-rebounded them 46-28.
Luther Head (24 points) and Yao Ming (21) scored 45 of the Rockets’ 92 points. Half of Luther’s points came on 3-pointers, hitting 4-of-6 from behind the arc.
This came only one game after it looked like he might be the odd man out with Aaron Brooks‘ emergence as a legitimate scoring threat. Brooks scored 22 points Saturday night against the Knicks and is on his way to a very bright future in the league. Add Tracy McGrady’s imminent return to the line-up soon, and Rafer Alston‘s dramatic scoring improvement recently, and things didn’t look good for Luther in getting as many minutes this season.
But if Luther continues to shoot like he Tuesday night, then for the first time this season it looks like the Rockets will have some scoring depth at guard after all, even with Steve Francis and Mike James riding the bench. Who would have thought that at the beginning of the season? Before training camp it looked like Alston was on his way out of town, Luther was an afterthought once again, and Brooks was ‘only’ a rookie.
I’m still concerned that when McGrady returns — as early as Friday they say — that the entire chemistry and flow of the team will be disrupted. Many people thought after McGrady got hurt that the Rockets’ offense would improve, which it definitely has. Even Wizards coach Eddie Jordan agreed when responding to the question regarding the difference with the Rockets with McGrady out. He replied: “Quicker. They play quicker. They probably move the ball a little bit better.”
So will McGrady really mess up the flow of the offense when he returns? Something tells me probably not. I’ve got to think he’s learned a lot about the talent on this team during his absence in a spread where they have gone 5-2 without him and won 3 in a row, their longest ever without McGrady playing. And he knows everyone will be watching him very closely when he returns to see if his presence is detrimental to the team. Because of that, I think he’s going to be much smarter about what he does when he returns.
Unfortunately, I’m concerned it might not last. Once guys like Alston or Head or Brooks or even Yao Ming hit a cold spell, he might revert back to his old ways in trying to “take over” by shooting ill-advised jumpers and keeping his teammates out of the flow of the game. Then you’ll start to hear the calls from fans for him to be traded. I hope I’m wrong. I really do. I hope that McGrady will understand that if he were to be traded, it will probably be to a worse team, so he might as well do everything he can to make it work here.
In the meantime, let’s savor this performance we saw from Luther. In addition to the 3-pointers, he cut to the basket several times for layups, and ran a fast break with Alston to finish beautifully for a layup. I’m hoping that with continued playing time, Luther will continue to gain confidence so that if the Rockets make the playoffs, he can erase that terrible memory from last season’s playoff series against the Jazz where he basically disappeared. We all know the risk is high that a player will be labeled as a disappointment if they disappear or don’t play well in the playoffs for a second straight post-season, which could really affect their long-term psyche.
Back to Tuesday night’s win. Yao had solid stats with 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting, 9 boards, 4 assists, and 4 blocks. The main problem he had was getting blocked 3 or 4 times, which lowered his shooting percentage significantly and was simply put…embarrassing. I’ve always said there is nothing to be ashamed of if Yao gets his shot blocked. There are plenty of jumpers in the league who can get up there to block Yao. But for it to happen multiple times in one game isn’t fun to watch. To Yao’s credit, he didn’t let it get him down. He just came back and always hit another shot to show it didn’t damage his confidence.
Just as important, the value of his ability to hit his foul shots (7-of-7 from the line on Tuesday) down the stretch is immeasurable. Fouling almost any other big man in the fourth quarter gives most teams a chance if they’re looking to make a run to get back into a game. But not with Yao. As each shot swishes through the net, it just has to demoralize the other team.
Finally, you’ve got to give props to Alston. He shot poorly from 3-point range again (1-for-6), but still finished 7-of-15 from the floor. Do the math, and that’s 6-of-9 from within the 3-point line. But I’ll get off my soapbox for a minute about Rafer shooting 3-pointers and commend him right now for being able to finish when he gets into the lane. That was his bugaboo in the past. We all knew he could get into the lane with his Skip-to-my-Lou moves, but he wasn’t good at closing the deal around the rim. That has changed a lot lately given that he has worked very hard with the coaching staff to improve on that very problem.
It’s unbelievable how much he has improved on that weakness. Like I said, you’ve got to give him credit for his improvement in that area. I don’t know if if the league would ever come up with an award for the most improved player WITHIN a season, but if they did, Alston would be on that ballot.
The only drawback to Alston’s game was his 5 turnovers, but everyone was careless with the ball with the Rockets turning it over 21 times. I was glad to see after the game that coach Rick Adelman got on to the team for not taking care of the ball and trying to make more difficult plays when easier ones could have been made. I like the fact he’s not just satisfied with a victory, but HOW they are winning. That’s big progress from just a couple of weeks ago when a ‘W’ was the end-all.
There’s more I would like to comment on about this game, but it’s late, and there’s another game on Wednesday night against the Knicks on the second night of a back-to-back, so I’ll share more of those thoughts in tomorrow night’s write-up.