Coming into Houston on Saturday, the Atlanta Hawks were on the second night of a back-to-back (losing at home to Cleveland the night before), and had lost 9 of their last 10 road games. But the Rockets showed no sympathy by playing one of their most complete games of the season, drilling the Hawks 108-89 to win their 6th game in a row and go 30-20 for the season. After the Rockets were a mediocre 13-15 just 7 weeks ago, it’s getting really interesting in Houston these days.
The Rockets had 29 assists against Cleveland on Thursday, and Saturday night they racked up a season-high 32 dimes while scoring 44 field goals and shooting 54.3% from the field. They shared the ball so well and had guys cutting to the basket for easy shot attempts, it reminded me a lot of the Sacramento Kings during their heyday under Rick Adelman. Or dare I say it, the Spurs during their championship runs.
It’s very rare when a team achieves that level of chemistry where the Rockets get as many assists as they’ve had the past two games. I remember back in 1994 and 1995 when the Rockets won their championships, a lot of it was the result of unselfish basketball like what we’re seeing now. It’s still early yet, but if the Rockets keep this up, it going to start getting really fun in H-town.
While everyone was passing the ball, Yao Ming was being his dominant self by scoring 28 points on 12-of-17 shooting (10 in a row at one point), 4-of-4 from the line, and blocking 2 shots. He also had 3 assists to join the passing party.
The Hawks had no answer to the Big Man, either down low where he scored multiple times with left-handed jump hooks off the glass (he seems to really have perfected that shot). And they could only watch in awe as he hit two long jumpers from the top of the key to finally break his shooting slump from out there.
And did you see that play where Yao got the ball behind the 3-point line, then dribbled it a couple of times toward the basket taking giants steps to get all the way to the basket for a layup attempt? Although he missed the shot, it showed yet another move in his arsenal that has to keep opposing defenses guessing.
Tracy McGrady played a smart game by not jacking up too many ill-advised shots (just 14 field goal attempts, making 5 of them), and instead looked more to pass. McGrady had a team-high 8 assists while scoring 15 points. When McGrady plays like this by emphasizing passing more than jacking up long-range bombs, the Rockets are clearly a better team with him than without. I’ll take the assists more than his points any day.
The Rockets led by 30+ in the 3rd quarter and cruised the rest of the way. My only complaint was when they had Yao in the game in the fourth quarter with a 31-point lead. Way too risky, and Yao needs as much rest when he can get it. But after he hit his second long jumper from the top of the key near the beginning of the 4th quarter, Adelman got him out of there.
It helps a lot that the Rockets got off to a hot start again, thanks to Luis Scola being in the starting lineup and scoring 8 points in the first quarter on 4-of-5 shooting and grabbing 6 boards. Scola’s offensive punch helped the Rockets build a 14-point lead in the opening quarter. Scola would go on to make 3-of-3 shots the rest of the way to finish with 14 points and 9 rebounds.
The recipient of several passes from McGrady, Bonzi Wells played a solid game by scoring most of his 11 points in the paint on 3-of-4 shooting and dishing a season-high 6 assists. And get this: He made 5-of-6 free throws after only making 1-of-5 on Thursday night against Cleveland. If he continues to do that, he will become an even more important part of this team.
Because the game was such a blowout, Aaron Brooks got 20 minutes of playing time and scored 7 points by hitting 3-of-7 shots, including a 3-pointer to hopefully give him confidence in the area where he has struggled recently.
Also hitting 3-of-7 shots was power forward Carl Landry, scoring 6 points and getting 19 minutes of playing time.
Because there was so much garbage time, Steve Novak played the entire fourth quarter and looked good hitting 4-of-6 shots to score 9 points.
Not to be overshadowed was the Rockets defense, holding Atlanta to just 37.2% shooting overall (28% by halftime), one of their worst shooting nights of the season, and held them to just 10 points in the second quarter. Houston also had 4 steals and 6 blocks in the game.
While Houston continues to roll and win games convincingly, the teams they are battling against in their same vicinity (8th playoff spot) are struggling somewhat. Golden State has been playing poorly at home recently. They lost at home Thursday night against a mediocre Chicago Bulls team, and played poorly at home Saturday night against Sacramento barely winning by 3 points. Also, they barely beat the Knicks at home on January 27th, the Nets on January 24th, and lost to Minnesota on January 21st. So that’s all good for Houston.
Meanwhile, Portland (the Rockets’ next opponent on Monday night) lost to a mediocre Indiana team on the road Saturday night, and they come into Houston 2 games behind the Rockets. A win on Monday night for the Rockets would be huge for Houston, giving them a 3-game lead over the Blazers.
Looking above themselves in the standings, the Rockets are only 3 games behind San Antonio for the 5th playoff seed. It’s just amazing how tight things are in the West. It’s still too difficult to predict who will get the top 4 seeds in the West, which will determine who the Rockets will play if they end up making the playoffs.
If I had to choose, I would want Houston to play Dallas or New Orleans since the Rockets have a fairly decent history against those teams. I wouldn’t want Phoenix, not because of the Shaq factor, but because of their run-and-gun style is still so hard to defend. Neither would I want Utah or San Antonio, for obvious historical reasons. The Lakers also scare me because of all the weapons they now have on that team. So to me, Dallas and New Orleans are the lesser of all evils.