After the 76er game on Tuesday in which the Rockets played so poorly down the stretch, it motivated me to start thinking about what the Rockets should start doing to win games in the clutch. After almost letting another game slip away because of missed shots and free throws against San Antonio on Saturday, it just confirmed my thoughts about what needs to be done.
Yes, Yao Ming missed 3 free throws in a row late in that game that could have spelled disaster for the Rockets. That has been a trend for Yao lately. He missed 3 shots in a row against Philadelphia, he missed an open look late in the New Orleans game, and also had two turnovers late in that game.
It’s obvious to me that Yao is not the guy who should be shooting shots late in games. I think his abilities are better served crashing the boards if, and when, other players miss shots. To not have him underneath the rim for rebounds — like he showed how valuable he was Saturday night against the Spurs — is just too valuable an asset to give up. Yao has shown he’s a better rebounder this season, and that he’s very capable of scoring on put-backs after other players’ missed shots.
There’s just something about Yao’s confidence that doesn’t give him the ability to hit those late-game shots. That’s okay. I don’t slight him for that. Although he’s more of a scoring center, I’m perfectly content with him taking shots for the first 44 or 45 minutes, and letting someone else take the big shots in crunch time. There’s no shame in that.
I think once Yao (and other players) see that someone else can be “the man” late in games, I think eventually it will inspire a willingness to want to experience some of that same glory and feeling, and they will be more confident and really want to take those shots. When it comes to making late-game shots or free throws, I think it mainly boils down to confidence.
The problem is that no one else on the team seems capable of being the primary option to hit big shots. Rafer Alston, Luther Head, Shane Battier and Tracy McGrady haven’t proven to anyone they can be those guys. We’ve all seen it: they tighten up and leave the Rockets with really no option. That’s why I think Rick Adelman needs to be more daring in trying different options.
I suggest that the Rockets start trying some of the young guys to take the big shots. That basically means Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, Steve Novak, and Carl Landry. I’m tired of seeing the other guys lay bricks.
I think for the most part you’re either born with that confidence to take big shots, or you’re not. Kobe Bryant has it. Sam Cassell has it. And there’s really only one way to find out. Try the new guys. I’m sure there were many people who didn’t think at one time that Kobe and Cassell didn’t have “it,” but eventually they got their chance. And that’s all I’m asking the Rockets to do in finding that one guy (or guys).
I know a lot of traditionalists are afraid to let rookies have this kind of opportunity. They think there is too much at risk. That this is a veteran team that has a chance to do something in the playoffs (if they get there) so why hand the reins over to rookies or first-year players in crunch time? I disagree. I think the Rockets are at a juncture where they aren’t going to go far with what they have late in games, and they’re teetering on the edge of ‘rebuilding’ anyway with the young guys if they don’t make the playoffs. So why not move up the timeline and give the young guys that chance now? And the great thing is that I think it can work out both ways: the Rockets can still make the playoffs, be a threat, and have their young guys taking on a more visible role. Just look at what Portland is doing now.
I also think you can’t keep thinking about trading guys when you haven’t exhausted the possibilities with your current players. You can’t keep drafting or trading for players while giving up on the ones you got because then you’re always relying on the new guys who DO arrive to be shooting hot at the time. That’s too risky of a proposition, and you end up throwing out guys who could have helped you. So here’s my recipe moving forward through the end of this season when big shots need to be hit late in games:
Start rotating the opportunity for Brooks, Scola, Landry and Novak to hit big shots. These guys come from very competitive conferences or leagues (Spanish league in Scola’s case) where they probably have hit some big shots in their careers. That means you have any combination of the two in the game at the same time, and have the other guys, including Yao and McGrady, open up shots for these guys off SET plays run for either one of the them that might be open, not just some helter-skelter plays where they are jacking up low-percentage shots. For example, let Brooks and Scola have the chance to be the first two options to take the big shot, and let’s see what happens over the course of a few games when they are put in that position. I’m hoping at least one of them will work out to be the big shot maker.
Over time if it doesn’t work out with Brooks and Scola, then start playing Steve Novak earlier in games, and put him in there late along with Carl Landry or any other combination.
Let’s not find out about how well Scola, Brooks, Landry and Novak shoot in the clutch by accident. That could take years, and might never happen if the Rockets decide that trading for veterans is the only way to go. At least if the Rockets decide to do a trade, they will at least know they gave everyone a chance. Remember, there is a good argument that big shot takers are born, not made. So why not find out if the Rockets have that special someone already underneath their nose, similar to how they found out about Robert Horry, who arguably became the best clutch shooter in NBA history.
I can almost guarantee when the whole team knows they can rely on one guy (or two) to hit the big shot, then the others will want to get in on it. You could end up having guys like Yao and McGrady successfully making clutch shots since they will know there is less pressure on them to hit those shots since they know someone else is willing to carry that burden.