I admit that I’m very cautious and conservative when it comes to heaping praise on the Rockets. We have learned from past experience that right when you want to get excited about the idea of the Rockets dominating the league (remember that 6-1 record to start this season?), reality sets in followed by a big letdown.
So during the Rockets’ recent 10-game winning streak, I haven’t been completely convinced the Rockets had proven much since none of their opponents were world-beaters. I would bet many of the players felt the same way. That’s why the Rockets game against the New Orleans Hornets on Friday night was HUGE. If the Rockets lose the game, then we would know we still need to keep our optimism at safeguarded levels.
If they win, then it would be a statement game to the rest of the league, and themselves, that they are for real. And maybe it would give everyone peace of mind that it’s okay to start getting a little crazy. No better place to start a party than in New Orleans, right?
That’s exactly what the Rockets did, dominating the Hornets in their own gym 100-80 to win their 11th straight game. And the way the Rockets did it, I think it gives them even more confidence that maybe they can actually win the whole thing. After all, New Orleans is no slouch. They had a 5-game winning streak of their own coming into the game, and had won 22 of their last 26 by recently beating quality opponents like Dallas, Phoenix, Denver and San Antonio.
The Rockets won in convincing fashion, smothering the Hornets with 40% shooting and holding Chris Paul, who had 31 points against Dallas in his last game, to a manageable 14 points Friday night.
The defense continues to be the thing this team hangs its hat on. As much as we hoped Jeff Van Gundy‘s defense would carry the Rockets far into the playoffs last season, it’s actually this year where we could see that happen sans JVG. Who would have thought that?
However, not all of the national media may be convinced about the Rockets’ D. This is a quote from the Associated Press write-up on the game (they normally are supposed to be very objective):
“The Hornets simply had an off night, narrowly missing a slew of shots they would normally make, both inside and from the perimeter.”
On the offensive end, the Rockets came out in the first quarter with Yao taking control, scoring 8 of the Rockets first 10 points. It was clear this wasn’t going to be one of those games where Yao gets flustered by turning the ball over or gets the ball stripped every time he turns with the ball, especially since he was being guarded one-on-one by Tyson Chandler most of the game.
Yao would go on to score 28 points on 12-of-21 shooting and grab 14 boards, 5 on the offensive glass. And he only had 2 turnovers. But get this stat: his plus/minus differential when he was on the floor was a +30! I have never seen one that high!
As great as Yao was, I think Tracy McGrady had one of his best all-around games as a Rocket and represented all that we have hoped McGrady can be. He attacked the rim relentlessly (including a highlight reel tomahawk jam in the first quarter), and when he attempted outside shots, he hit them. Keep attacking McGrady, keep attacking. It all resulted in 34 points on 14-of-26 shooting, 3-of-6 from three-point land, 6 assists, and only 2 turnovers.
It’s like McGrady was energized by the high-profile nature of this game and wanted to be aggressive, like he knows he needs to be in his next playoff series. If this was a precursor of how he’ll play in the next series, in about 2 ½ months we’ll soon forget that he never won a playoff series.
I wonder if McGrady had seen a recording of what Charles Barkley said Thursday night on TNT about how McGrady has been known in the past as a “ball stopper” (meaning the ball stops moving when it gets to him), and so was extra motivated to keep the rock moving – either while in his own possession or getting it to others.
One of my favorite passes from McGrady occurred at the 9:09 mark in the second quarter when he received the ball behind the 3-point line on a semi-fast break, and threw an immediate touch pass to Carl Landry who was cutting to the hole and threw down the McGrady assist for a dunk. That was the Rockets 10th assist on 15 field goals (they would finish with 21 assists on 42 FGs).
As strong of a start the Rockets got in the first quarter to lead 29-24 paced by McGrady’s 10 points and 8 from Yao, they really made their move in the second quarter by holding the Hornets to 3-of-18 shooting, which included a stretch where they went 8 minutes without hitting a field goal.
My favorite possession during that quarter was when a couple of Rockets got the ball behind the 3-point line and were wide open to take shots, but didn’t go crazy by jacking one up, and got the ball down low to Luis Scola for a layup (and a foul) who had a mismatch with Chris Paul guarding him. That kind of patience hadn’t happened much before their current streak.
By halftime, the Rockets held a 16-point lead, 51-35. Although they were playing very well, I actually think they blew a few chances that could have given them an even bigger lead. Knowing the Rockets’ history, you knew they were going to need as many points as possible since you knew the Hornets would make their obligatory third or fourth quarter run.
But the Rockets made up for it by playing one of their finest quarters since, well, the 41-point first quarter they had against Miami the night before. Yao and McGrady were on fire in the third, both hitting 5-of-8 shots on strong moves to pace the Rockets to an 82-56 lead after three quarters.
From that point on, the Rockets coasted. Sure, they turned the ball over 3 straight possessions in the fourth quarter to help the Hornets cut the deficit to 18 points, but the Rockets had built such a large buffer, it was going to be almost impossible to blow this one.
Honorable mentions in this game go to Landry, who was active as always by grabbing 11 boards and scoring 7 points. Watching ESPN SportsCenter after the game, even Bill Walton was raving about Landry and how quickly he has emerged as a force. He’s no longer a Houston-only secret.
Luis Scola also contributed his energy with 9 boards and 8 points on 3-of-7 shooting.
Rafer Alston held his own against CP3 by dishing 11 dimes and scoring 9 points, although he shot 1-of-7 from three-point land and missed a point blank lay-up. The good news is that new Rocket guard Bobby Jackson should be able to help out when Alston’s shooting is struggling like that. Jackson should be able to play on Sunday against the Bulls after passing his physical.
Alston did have one of my favorite plays of the game (in a game where there were many) when he dove to the floor as Chris Paul let the ball roll on the floor so the clock wouldn’t start ticking. Although Alston didn’t come up with the ball, that play represented just how much everyone is hustling to go after loose balls. It’s contagious, and players like Scola and Landry may have been the catalyst to start the trend.
At the end of this season, many observers may look at this win as a pivotal victory that proved the Rockets are a true force to be reckoned with. In the short term, it gets them one game closer to the Hornets in the Western Conference standings and into the fray that consists of Phoenix, the Lakers, San Antonio, Dallas, and Utah.
The Rockets are playing so well right now, you kind of wish they could start the playoffs ASAP rather than play another 27 games where nothing but bad things and loss of momentum can happen.
Okay, enough of the negative thinking. “It’s time” to be very optimistic and think positive thoughts as the Rockets try to win their next five games, all to be played at home and all very winnable. I expect the TV ratings for each of these games in Houston will be sky-high compared to normal. Winning has a way of doing that.