The Rockets narrowly escaped disaster Wednesday night and an All-Star break where they would have been torn up inside thinking about one of their most devastating losses of the season. Also…
Thinking about how their recent hot streak might have been a fluke.
How they were chokers when it came to winning close games.
How they weren’t really that good after all, despite winning 7 games in a row coming into the game.
That maybe some trades need to happen before the February 21st trade deadline after all to change the chemistry on the team so that nothing like that happens again.
That’s what they might have been thinking if they had lost Wednesday night. After all, when you’re leading by 18 points against a sub-500 team, you’re expected to close the deal if you’re a good team. Especially after the Rockets had lost in similar fashion to the 76ers at home on January 15th when they had blown a 16-point fourth quarter lead.
But the Rockets miraculously pulled victory out of the jaws of defeat when seldom-used Steve Novak rescued the Rockets “Robert Horry style” by hitting a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds remaining to give the Rockets an 89-87 lead. It was one of the biggest shots hit by a Rocket at Toyota Center in years.
Up until Novak’s 3-pointer, the Rockets had been outscored 26-7 by the Kings led by Ron Artest’s 15 points in the fourth quarter on 6-for-6 shooting. Meanwhile, the Rockets had only hit 2-of-14 shots in the fourth quarter, playing offense as bad as they had done previously in the season. How disheartening that the “old” Rockets offense reared its ugly head right when everyone had felt they had turned the corner and that couldn’t happen to the “new” Rockets.
When they were blowing that 18-point lead Wednesday night, I didn’t mind too much that they were being tested and forced to make some plays down the stretch. That’s never a bad thing to have to do to remain sharp and not get complacent.
But when Brad Miller hit a three-pointer with 6:10 remaining to cap a 15-1 run and pull the Kings to 80-76, I obviously thought that was too close for comfort and the time for the Rockets to make a play was long overdue.
So what happened on the ensuring possession? Tracy McGrady jacked up a 3-pointer and missed. It was like it was Game 7 of the Utah series all over again.
Thankfully Yao decided to take it upon himself to do something about it on the next possession, spinning baseline and throwing down a dunk to make it 82-76. Finally we saw a Rocket exhibit some leadership!
Then Shane Battier came up with a big block on Justin Williams with 4:48 remaining, and on the ensuing possession Yao hit a big shot in the lane to make it 84-78. Finally some breathing room!
McGrady proceeded to blow an easy alley-oop dunk, but Yao was fouled with 3:34 remaining and hit 2 free throws to make it 86-79.
But then Artest proceeded to score 8 points in a row while the Rockets offense continued to struggle (Yao missed a jump hook, Rafer Alston was forced to jack up a three because the offense was so out of sync, McGrady was stripped by Artest, and Alston threw a bad pass into Yao that was stolen by the Kings).
That set up the big-time shot by Novak that turned everything around.
Although McGrady disappeared in the fourth quarter by scoring 0 points, a lot of credit goes to him for finding Novak after penetrating into the lane and throwing it back out to Novak for the winning shot.
McGrady mentioned after the game that he told Rick Adelman during a time-out earlier in the fourth quarter that he thought Novak should be in the game because the Kings were double-teaming McGrady hard on pick-and-rolls and he thought they needed a shooter like Novak in the game. So give McGrady credit for advising Adelman on the rotation change, and for Adelman listening and doing something about it.
Still, it shouldn’t have come down to Novak rescuing the team from so much of the potential pain I mentioned at the top of this piece. Hopefully the Rockets will go into the All-Star break with a determination to never let that happen again. I was disappointed that McGrady said after the game that because of the victory, they can go into the break “with a little bit of swagger.” Swagger? Give me a break.
The Rockets were one missed shot away from potentially going through some major changes before February 21st if they had lost. After the 4th quarter collapse that GM Daryl Morey and owner Leslie Alexander saw Wednesday night, that could still happen. So I think “swagger” may be too strong of a word when they were one missed shot away from a better term being “stagger.”
On the bright side, you may remember on January 20th when I wrote a post about what I thought the Rockets needed to do to find player(s) who could hit big shots late in a game. Part of that involved playing the young new guys like Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Aaron Brooks and Novak.
Now that Novak has hit this big shot to win a game, the Rockets now have a guy they can use in late-game situations who has loads of confidence and has the mental toughness to block everything out and hit the big shot.
They also have an outside threat in Novak who can help free things up for Yao and McGrady, who usually have to take highly contested shots in the paint in late game situations. I have always thought it’s usually easier to shoot a 3-pointer than try to drive into the lane or pass into the post late in the game when the defense is packed in. I don’t think Novak will be left off any lineup cards anytime soon. 🙂
I could go into a lot of detail about how the Rockets played fairly well the first 3 quarters, but that doesn’t really matter too much since they didn’t put the Kings away when they had the chance, and the Rockets let them back into the game in the fourth.
A couple of examples of blown chances were like when the Rockets had a 3-on-1 fast break in the first quarter, and turned the ball over when Battier wasn’t prepared for a pass that came his way when McGrady passed it to him and it sailed out of bounds for a turnover. I don’t think I had ever seen a 3-on-1 break botched that badly before.
Another problem area that could have helped put the Kings away earlier was the 5 free throws they missed out of 16 attempts through the first 3 quarters – which was only a 69% free throw shooting average.
I will say, though, that the Rockets looked great offensively for most of the game. They were moving the ball around, running the fast break, and had their way most of the first 3 quarters.
Yao was fantastic with 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting, 14 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots in 39 minutes, and scored 6 of the Rockets 7 points in the fourth quarter before Novak hit his 3-pointer to win it.
Rafer Alston had 23 points on 9-of-20 shooting, including 3-of-7 from three-point land. He also had 7 assists and was actually fairly decent (except for that 4th quarter when the offense bogged down not being able to get a good shot off most of the quarter).
McGrady was only 3-of-12 from the field for 10 points. But I’ve always said I’m okay with McGrady taking that “few” field goal atempts and restraining himself from jacking up too many jump shots, even if he shoots a low percentage. That’s because he can do other things like rebound (7) and dish assists (5). I’m still not happy that he jacked up 5 three-pointers and made only one, but it could have been worse.
Shane Battier picked up the scoring slack from McGrady’s lower-than-average output, scoring 15 points on 6-of-15 shooting, including an encouraging 3-of-8 from three-point land.
Surprisingly Luis Scola only played 11 minutes and scored 6 points. That was partly because he picked up his second foul 3 minutes into the game, but I’ve also got to think it was because of defensive purposes (like Artest).
The guy who continues to concern me is Bonzi Wells with his inconsistency. After some strong games recently, he was 0-for-4 from the field Wednesday night, so his point production was severely missed (especially in that fourth quarter).
As I stated in my last post, I’m still not convinced that Bonzi can be relied upon to be a force offensively because once you think he’s snapped out of a shooting slump, he slides into another one. He also had 3 turnovers in just 19 minutes of action, which is way too high. Two of those TOs came from bad passes into Yao. But at least he had 4 assists. Nevertheless, I think the Rockets are really going to need Bonzi if they are going to make a strong run for the playoffs and beyond.
Now the Rockets are 32-20 heading into the break, and unfortunately for them Golden State pulled out a narrow victory over Phoenix to also up their record to 32-20. That makes a 3-way tie between the Rockets, the Warriors and the Nuggets for the 7th and 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs at this moment and time.
Like previous All-Star game breaks, I’ll be posting a few thoughts here and there over the next few days, like Yao’s activities in New Orleans. If my schedule permits, I may even head over to the Crescent City to check things out and take a few photos.