I was absolutely astounded with what I saw Tuesday night as I watched the Rockets upset the Warriors 111-107, in my mind probably the biggest upset of the season for the Rockets, even if it was a home game. Here are the reasons why I am very surprised with this victory.
The Warriors are absolutely loaded offensively, scary to play because you’re never safe no matter how big of a lead you may build, and they have had the Rockets’ number in their first two matchups this season with the Warriors winning both games easily. Every game right now means something to the Warriors, too, as the Rockets and other teams are not too far behind them in the playoff race.
The Rockets started off giving the Warriors a taste of their own medicine, coming out running-and-gunning and opening up a 20-point lead at one time in the first quarter! However, you just knew that kind of lead wasn’t going to last because the Warriors are so explosive. It’s no surprise the Rockets would get away from moving the ball and doing the things that got them their big lead, which let the Warriors back into the game when so they could make their much anticipated run.
Ironically, it wasn’t the Rockets getting back to that faster style of play that won them this game. It was the plodding, old JVG-style of halfcourt basketball where one guy (guess who) posts up and wills his way to get a shot off, or gets fouled to go to the free throw line. Not as beautiful as moving the ball around to find the open man to take a shot, but still very effective.
After only averaging 13 points and taking 20 shots in both games against the Warriors this season, Yao Ming was a beast against the undersized Warriors, scoring 36 points on 11-of-19 shooting and 14-of-15 from the line, while also grabbing 19 boards. The 36 and 19 were both season highs for Yao in those categories. Also remember that this is one game after Yao missed a game with an upper respiratory infection and having to labor through a running team like the Warriors for 40 minutes, including no break from the court in the first quarter and the first couple of minutes of the second.
Yao started the game with a tomahawk jam for the game’s first basket, and ended it just as strong by being the go-to man down the stretch as the Rockets’ frittered away their huge lead against the Warriors. Yao was dominant as he scored 8 points in a row for his team late in the game when the Rockets really didn’t look for, or have, any other reliable option.
It was almost scary how the Rockets kept force-feeding the ball into Yao after he struggled all night long with the quick-handed Warriors, who had signififant success stripping the ball away from him for a whopping 7 turnovers. Every time Yao’s teammates threw him the ball during his late fourth quarter domination, you had to wince that another turnover was about to happen. But Yao did a great job learning from his past mistakes and was absolute money taking care of the ball when it counted.
Six of Yao’s points in that 8-point run of his came from the free throw line. I have to admit that the referees seemed to call the defense being played against him late in the game much more closely than earlier in the game, thus sending Yao to the line to get extremely important points after the Warriors actually took a 102-101 lead. But I’m not complaining after all the grief Yao had to take not only in this game from bad ref calls, but in all the other ones this season and in seasons’ past.
I’m glad Yao was able to take care of business, but I was pleasantly surprised that he took most of the shots in that late stretch after we have seen other teammates taking late-game shots they shouldn’t be taking (namely Rafer Alston and Tracy McGrady jacking up 3-pointers).
Also, the Rockets haven’t really let the “young guns” like Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry or Steve Novak take shots in the final 2 or 3 minutes of a game to see if they have the mental toughness to hit those shots. But I’m not complaining – Yao has been overlooked in too many games this season such that he deserved to have gotten his chances in this game against the Warriors.
Another reason I’m shocked the Rockets beat the high-powered Warriors is that McGrady didn’t play because of the flu. That means the other guards like Rafer Alston and Luther Head had to step up. Did they ever.
Alston has been much maligned recently (for good reason), especially after his hot shooting streak ended and he became an average point guard again. But Alston played one of his best games of the season, scoring 17 points, shooting 7-of-19 from the field, dishing 12 assists, grabbing 8 boards, 2 steals, and get this: only 2 turnovers. His main detriment was, what else, 3-point shooting where he was only 2-of-8 from the field.
Those two 3-pointers he made were huge, though. They came late in the 2nd quarter when the Warriors made one of many runs to overcome a 20+ point deficit. If Alston hadn’t made those back-to-back threes right before halftime when the Rockets’ offense was struggling, then you’ve got to think the Rockets probably would have blown their lead much earlier than they ended up doing and eventually would have lost this game.
Luther Head, who a lot of people including myself had given up on recently because of his inconsistency and McGrady’s return to the lineup, resurrected himself in this game. He was extremely solid shooting the ball when the Rockets needed as many points as they could get against the high-flying Warriors. Head finished with 20 points on 7-of-16 shooting, hit all 5 of his free throws, and dished 6 assists.
Like Alston, Head’s main trouble was 3-point shooting (1-for-5 from the field), although the one trey he had was extremely impressive as he shaked-and-baked behind the three-point line, dribbled it between his legs, then rose up to nail the shot over his defender. He normally takes his three-pointers spotting up and getting a pass from a teammate. So the fact he created his own shot from beyond the arc was very unique for him. I can’t complain too much about Head’s missed 3-pointers because he was so automatic with those 15-foot jumpers inside the arc. Those points were sorely needed against the Warriors as they made their surge.
Without McGrady in the lineup, Alston and Head seemed more comfortable playing up-tempo, which is like playing with fire when you’re facing the run-and-gun Warriors. Who would have thought a couple of years ago a Houston offense would actually play faster without McGrady in the lineup? It just goes to show that McGrady is really not as much of a running player as most people thought he would be when he came to Houston.
Another big reason why the Rockets won this game was because Baron Davis had a rare off game, hitting only 6-of-22 shots and 3-of-11 three-pointers. If he had made only 2 of the treys he missed late in the game, he could have put the final nail in the Rockets’ coffin. But he didn’t, and the Rockets staved off what could have been another heartbreaking loss.
Another reason for the win was Rick Adelman‘s decision to finally start Luis Scola over Chuck Hayes. It was long overdue, and it paid off immediately. Scola helped the Rockets get off to a fast start, scoring 8 points on 3-of-5 shooting in the first quarter and forcing the Warrior defense to pay attention to him, something that is unheard of when Hayes is in the game.
The attention the Warriors had to give Scola benefitted Yao immensely, and Yao cashed in by scoring 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting in that first quarter.
Last but not least, Steve Novak was inserted into the game in the fourth quarter as the Rockets struggled to score while the Warriors made their run to make up that huge deficit they had throughout the game. And Novak delivered for the second straight game, hitting his first 3 shots (two of them being 3-pointers) to score a total of 8 points.
If you didn’t see the game, you can imagine the reaction from the Toyota Center crowd and from his teammates on the bench when he drained those much-needed shots. For the second straight game, Toyota Center was electric. It’s almost like when a very good home run hitter comes to the plate and everyone knows that he’s in there just to hit a home run, and when he does hit it, the place just erupts like a volcano.
Novak would go on to miss his next two shots, but the first miss came after it had been a long time since he last had a shot attempt, so he was eager to get a shot up even when he was a couple of feet behind the 3-point line, which fell short. His second miss came as the shot clock was winding down and he tried to do what he could do to try to draw a foul on a pump fake, then just threw the ball to the basket for an airball.
Because of McGrady’s absence and the foul trouble that beset rookie Aaron Brooks (who was also a rare 0-for-5 shooting for the night), Mike James was able to get his first playing time in a long time, and he looked good in taking it strong to the hole for only 2 shot attempts.
He missed his first attempt since it was a tough one as Andris Biedrins came over to defend him. His second shot came off a beautiful fast break where he laid it in off the glass over a defender. At least he didn’t jack up long-range jumpers like he was prone to doing before being benched. Perhaps that’s because he knew he had to be aggressive taking the ball to the hoop in the very little playing time he had (3 minutes total). Who knows, maybe this is the kind of game that will get James back on track. Doubtful, though, since McGrady will be back in the lineup in the Rockets’ next game on Friday.