It’s amazing that the Rockets won their 9th straight game Tuesday night, and their 9th straight on the road to tie a team record. With Yao and Tracy McGrady shooting a combined 9-for-38 (23.7%), Houston still managed to beat LeBron James and Cleveland 93-85
In the city where you can visit the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame, it’s appropriate that the Rocket “role” players were the guys who stepped up as Houston’s band leaders went AWOL.
It didn’t look good as the Rockets started off the game shooting 1-for-9, getting down 10-2 early, then they made only 2 of their next 9 shots. Then before finishing the first quarter, they hit 3 of their last 5 shots to get their field goal percentage to 26%. Shockingly, the Rockets led 21-20 at the end of the quarter thanks to good defense.
LeBron was 0-for-6 in the first quarter with 3 points, and in the second quarter he missed his only shot to go 0-for-7 by halftime with only 7 points. Incredible that the NBA All-Star MVP would get shut out from the field like that. But he wouldn’t be the only highly paid player to lose his shot in his first game back from the All-Star game.
For example, let’s take a look at Yao. In his previous 4 games, Yao has been so solid and consistent, it was actually getting a little boring. How many different ways can you say a player is playing great? There really wasn’t much you could complain about during that 4-game stretch: 25 ppg, 59.7% shooting, 13 rebounds per game.
But on Tuesday against Cleveland, other than his free throw shooting (10-of-10) and rebounding (14), he played one of his worst games of the season shooting an unbelievable 3-of-17 shooting from the field. It was so bad, he was blocked a few times and even missed an uncontested dunk that clanged off the back rim to go out-of-bounds.
Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas usually plays Yao pretty well, and they cancelled each other out in the scoring column as both scored 16 points each. But we know with Yao it’s just temporary. He’ll come back strong Thursday night against Miami who are now Shaq-less.
What’s more concerning is how bad Tracy McGrady looked offensively. Not only the missed shots (6-of-21 from the field overall, 2-for-11 by halftime), but settling into the bad habit of shooting long jumpers time and time again (0-for-4 from 3-point land), missing free throws (like bricking 2-of-3 FTs after being fouled on a 3-pointer), and throwing a lazy bounce pass into the teeth of the defense for a turnover.
I counted McGrady taking it to the hole roughly 4-or-5 times out of his 21 attempts overall. That is not enough for a guy who CAN get to the hole and is the highest paid player on the team.
McGrady did have some good moments, like when he hit 2 back-to-back jumpers at the start of the fourth quarter, dished 8 assists overall, and blocked 2 shots. But other than those 2 jumpers, I didn’t see enough from him to help the Rockets break free from the Cavaliers when the game could have been put away much earlier.
Instead, it came down to much lower paid players like Rafer Alston bailing them out. Alston was fantastic, hitting 8-of-15 shots including 6-of-10 from behind the arc for 22 points. He also had 6 assists, ran the fast break well, grabbed 5 rebounds, and had only 2 turnovers. The only blemish was missing 2 free throws. But we’ll take that any day if we can get the big numbers in those other areas.
Alston picked up right where he left off before the All-Star break when he scored 23 points against Sacramento, hitting 9-of-10 shots including 3-of-7 from three. He has been fairly streaky this season, with yours truly commenting that he could be considered “Most Improved Player” until he started missing tons of shots again and reverting back to his old ways. But if he continues to play like this and the Rockets continue to win, and he starts getting lots of publicity from the national media, then Most Improved Player consideration is not out of the question.
I think it’s still possible the Rockets can make a trade before the February 21st deadline to bring in a veteran point guard, like Andre Miller or Sam Cassell, who can help Alston as the Rockets make a strong push deep into the playoffs. But Alston deserves to stay in Houston and not be part of any deal that ships him out of town.
The other role player who is quickly becoming a hero is Luis Scola, who scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting against Cleveland with sweet jumpers and shifty moves around the basket that are almost impossible to guard. All of his buckets on the front line seemed so timely as Yao struggled shooting the entire night. Plain and simple: Scola is a stud.
And I can’t forget about Carl Landry and Bonzi Wells, who both grabbed 6 boards and scoring 8 and 7 points, respectively. They brought so much energy into the game, their plus-minus differential while they were on the court were the highest on the team by far: +10 for Landry and +14 for Bonzi.
And it would be a disservice not to applaud the defensive effort. The Cavs only shot 38.8% from the field, and Shane Battier did an awesome job on LeBron, who only made 7-of-18 shots, including a block of a ‘Bron 3-pointer as the Cavs finally got something going late to pose a threat. But the Rockets sealed the deal and walked out feeling good about themselves winning their 9th in a row on the road, dating back to the 1993-94 season when the Rockets won their first championship.
I’m still not getting too excited about the win streak, though. All you have to do is look at a very favorable schedule where they haven’t really beaten a team since January 21st that strikes fear in your heart other than Golden State. And I don’t think Houston has played its best basketball through the entire streak – they have had some close calls (remember Seattle and Sacramento, just to name a few?). But if it helps the Rockets play with more confidence and focus knowing they have a 9-game winning streak and they are being designated as the “league’s hottest team,” then I’m all for talking these streaks up.
Of course, the party could come to a temporary end when they play in New Orleans Friday on the second night of a back-to-back. If they win that game, then not only will I be very impressed, but things will get extremely interesting since the Rockets are right now only 4 games back from the Western Conference leading Hornets. What a year it has been in the West!