I was preparing for one of my biggest rants of the season as I saw the Rockets’ lack of heart on display during most of Wednesday night’s game against the 9-32 Seattle Sonics. I absolutely couldn’t believe that even the Rockets could lose to a team they had just narrowly beaten Monday to hand them their 11th loss in a row. Hadn’t they learned their lesson in almost blowing that game against the same team?
But then midway through the 4th quarter, something mysterious happened. The Rockets made plays and refused to lose, pulling out a miraculous 109-107 victory after being down 13 points with 8:10 remaining in the 4th quarter!
This game had two major themes: the first theme was about guys who you thought were down who came back to make big plays. The second theme was the opposite: about some guys who stepped up, but then went back down to almost negate everything they had done so well.
The first theme can be applied to the entire Rockets squad in general. The Sonics led most of the game, hitting everything from the outside and out-hustling Houston, leading by that seemingly insurmountable 13 points.
But then the Rockets came back on a surge, led by a guy who almost everyone thought a couple of weeks ago the Rockets would be better without, Mr. Tracy McGrady. He took over the game in the third and fourth quarters when hardly anyone else could hit a shot. He was everything you expect him to be, except for one major thing. After putting the Rockets on his back in the final minutes to finally give them a 2-point lead 12 with seconds remaining, he was intentionally fouled, then proceeded to BLOW TWO FREE THROWS, giving the Sonics a chance to win the game. You really want to believe in the guy, but right when you think you can without getting burned, he does something like that!
Then a few seconds later he made another major mistake on the game’s last play when he let Kevin Durant easily break free for a very makeable 3-point shot attempt, which luckily missed to give the Rockets the win. Realizing how lucky he was by letting Durant get open so easily, he just stood there in shock (as did his teammates) in disbelieve they had escaped with the W.
The down-and-then-up theme continues with Rafer Alston stinking it up from the field on 5-of-17 shooting (and 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter), until he hit a HUGE 3-pointer with 19 seconds remaining after McGrady penetrated into the lane and kicked it back out to Alston to make it 109-105 Houston. It’s amazing how one big shot like that can make everyone forget for a couple of days how poorly he was from INSIDE the 3-point line, but was ironically very good from 3-point range (5-of-9).
Finally, you have another down-then-up figure in Chuck Hayes, who was terrible on offense earlier in the game (as usual) after blowing an easy layup and shooting an airball to go 0-for-2 on the night. But then Rick Adelman inserted him into the game for defensive purposes on Seattle’s final possession, and Hayes delivered by blocking a Durant shot attempt out of bounds along the baseline with 1.6 remaining…right before his last 3-point attempt that could have won it.
Of course, we can’t forget about Yao, who was consistent all night long. He hit 14-of-15 from the line (including 3-for-3 from the line in the 4th quarter) and 6-of-13 from the field to score 26 points. He also grabbed 12 boards and 6 assists. No down-and-up or up-and-then-down theme for Yao. Just extremely solid on offense, scoring 10 points in the first quarter and 7 points in the fourth. Defense for him (and his teammates) could have been much better, though.
Let’s talk about McGrady some more. Near the end of the game he and Durant were in an absolute duel. McGrady scored on him a few times for very big shots, but Durant had his way during most of the game hitting jumper after jumper. Durant even took McGrady to the hole with 16 seconds remaining to out-extend him beautifully with his long arms for a layup off the glass. That gave KD 25 points, but McGrady offset his firepower with 28 points on 13-of-23 shooting. Without McGrady stepping up in this game, and I really think you could have written the Rockets off for the rest of the season because it would have been such a demoralizing loss after so many other terrible losses.
I don’t think it’s any accident that McGrady shot only three 3-pointers and the Rockets won. He shot only two 3’s on Monday, and they won that game, too. Like many of us have known for quite some time…if he doesn’t jack up stupid 3-pointers all the time, the Rockets have a much better chance of winning.
I look at the Seattle roster and see all the talent they have, and it’s hard for me to believe they have lost 12 in a row. For example, Kurt Thomas was huge by stepping outside away from Yao and hitting mid-range jumpers (6-of-7 overall for 16 points) to absolutely kill the Rockets. Then you’ve got Wally Szczerbiak showing that he can still shoot from the outside, scoring 22 points on 7-of-12 and 7-of-7 from the line. He was virtually unstoppable, but the Rockets’ bad perimeter defense didn’t hurt them at all.
Luke Ridnour hit 5-of-10 shots for 10 points. Earl Watson was 4-of-7 for 10 points. Even Johan Petro was 3-for-3 with 9 points. Their team shooting was 52% overall compared to Houston’s 47%, and they shot 60% in the first half. Their free throw shooting was much better, scoring 6 more points from the charity strip and hitting 81.4% of their FTs compared to Houston’s 62%. And Seattle committed only 9 turnovers. So you’ve got to wonder how in the world did Houston win this game?
It was because Houston out-did them in a couple of key categories. Houston was absolutely saved by their 3-point shooting, hitting 11-of-23 compared to Seattle’s 1-of-8. Houston also only turned the ball 7 times (3 by Yao). And they had a narrow margin in assists (28-23).
They also had some role players step up. Shane Battier was 4-of-8 from the field and 3-of-7 from 3-point range for 11 points. No shot was bigger than a very long 3-pointer he hit with 2:35 remaining in the game.
And there is no way you can forget about rookie Carl Landry, who was 4-of-4 from the field for 8 points, showing the hustle we have quickly come to expect from him. He also made an extremely athletic layup off the glass while in mid-air with 4:52 remaining in the game that helped the Rockets make their 25-8 run in the fourth quarter.
But the biggest difference was McGrady. Even with his terrible free throw shooting (you would have thought he would have had plenty of time to practice shooting free throws during the time he was out with his knee injury), he was feelin’ it when the Rockets absolutely needed him. If he hadn’t, then we could be very easily talking right now about dismantling this team after a humiliating loss against a poor Seattle team, and how no one showed leadership down the stretch to pull out a game the Rockets absolutely needed.
So for all the folks who thought before McGrady’s return a couple of games ago that he should be traded, let us know your thoughts after this game (if you saw it). Was this a fluke performance where the Rockets should consider trading him when his value is high, and his injury is not as serious as everyone might have thought? Or do they continue to ride him and see how far he and Yao can take this team?