When the Rockets were only leading 49-46 at halftime against a Chicago team that had young players in the starting lineup like Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas, and Thabo Sefolosha, and brand new veterans like Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes, the thought of the Rockets finally running out of gas after 11 straight wins had to enter one’s mind.
The Bulls were intent to make the Rockets run, and it was an effective strategy. The Rockets were playing well on the offensive end of the court, shooting 50% and scoring 49 points. But their defense gave up 53% shooting in the first half, 13 fast break points, and it didn’t help that the Rockets missed 7-of-14 free throws.
In the third quarter when the Rockets got close to putting the game away, the Bulls continued to fight and only trailed by 9 points entering the fourth quarter. Was this going to be another Philadelphia game debacle where the Rockets blow a fourth quarter lead to a young team that didn’t have much to lose?
Maybe the team from a couple of months ago might implode, but not this Rockets team that seems like a completely different crew playing with a new mindset. In the fourth quarter, the Rockets hit a barrage of 3-pointers that was “vintage Spurs” to blow the Bulls out in the final few minutes.
In that pivotal fourth quarter, new backup point guard Bobby Jackson quickly made his presence felt to make those fans who miss Bonzi Wells not feel as bad about his departure. Jackson hit a tough, leaning jumper (when’s the last time Mike James did that?) to make it 81-72, then on the next possession he took it all the way to the rack from the 3-point line for a twisting layup, and was fouled! After BJ hit the penalty free throw, the Rockets led 84-74 with 9:36 remaining.
Luther Head then hit a three (his third of the night) to make it 87-76, Tracy McGrady hit a long two-pointer, then the Rockets moved the ball around beautifully to Jackson, who hit another trey to make it 92-78 with 6:49 remaining to make Toyota Center rock like AT&T Center in San Antonio so many times over the past few years.
The Rockets weren’t done, though. McGrady kept applying the heat with 2 jumpers, followed by Shane Battier hitting two 3s in a row to make it 102-86 with 4:18 left.
So when you’ve got your brand new backup point guard like Jackson (who many people thought was too old) hitting 3-pointers, Shane Battier making a major contribution with 3-of-5 treys and 10 rebounds, Luther Head hitting 3-of-4 treys, Rafer Alston hitting 3-of-8 from behind the arc, and everyone else like Luis Scola, Carl Landry, McGrady, Rafer Alston, and Yao Ming doing their thing…well, the Rockets are virtually unbeatable.
To add more fuel to the Toyota Center euphoria, McGrady attacked the basket and scored to make it 104-88 with 3:46 left, and on the next possession attacked again, then dished to Jackson for a wide-open three! Unbelievable!
I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Bulls, who had the life sucked out of them seeing three-pointer after three-pointer hit the bottom of the net. It looked like they had been hit by a “Mac” truck.
That last pass by McGrady was emblematic of the “new” McGrady we’re seeing who is intent to attack the basket, pass, and/or both over the past few games. He would finish with 24 points on 7-of-13 shooting, attempted only 3 treys (I like that low number), made two of them, and dished 8 assists. He was awesome how he would drive into the teeth of the defense, then dish to Landry or Scola down low (he must have hit Luis with at least 4 perfect passes). McGrady’s 8 assists led the Rockets’ charge of 28 dimes on 40 field goals.
They have bought into the mantra I’ve been wanting them to follow for years: share the ball, and you’re probably going to win. Did you know that the Rockets have had 20 or more assists in all 12 of the wins in their streak? It seems like it would be so easy to develop a passing mentality, but I guess it’s easier said than done for whatever reason.
With all the great passing to find the open man, it helped that the Rockets made an amazing 13-of-24 three-pointers (54%), which was better than their entire FG% (50.6%).
Scola would finish as the second high-scorer (behind McGrady) with 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting. I still can’t help but mention how big of a factor he has been to the win streak ever since he started in place of Chuck Hayes.
Rafer Alston had a pretty good game with 13 points. I think he took too many three-pointers (8) but he made 3 of them, right when the Rockets seemed to need them in those first 3 quarters while they were trying to create some distance from the Bulls. He also had 6 turnovers, but he shot 5-of-10 overall and had 4 steals.
Next in scoring was Yao with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting. 10 of Yao’s points came in the first 3 quarters when the Rockets needed every point they got. He also posterized with a baseline dunk one of the most hated players in the league – Joakim Noah! Yao did his patented spin move on the baseline, barreled over Noah while elevating for the dunk, then threw it down on his mug right after! Man, I enjoyed that one!
Here are a few other random thoughts I have from the game:
* When Carl Landry entered the game near the end of the first quarter, he made a quick impact. He blocked Ben Gordon, then on the next possession he hustled for an offensive rebound after a missed free throw! He seems to have a knack for that. It’s a joy to watch him going after offensive boards to throwing down dunks. The only thing that wasn’t fun to watch was his missing 4 free throws in a row. CL is going to have to step it up at the line since you know he’s going to get fouled a lot in the coming weeks. Otherwise, he’s going to have plenty of Bonzi moments at the charity stripe.
* One of my favorite plays occurred at the end of the first quarter when McGrady lost the ball and there was a mad scramble for it as the shot clock was winding down. Jackson dove for the ball and punched it to Luther Head near the half-court line, then Luther passed it to a wide-open McGrady behind the 3-point line, who launched it right before the shot clock went off…and McGrady swished it to make Toyota Center erupt!
* At the beginning of the second quarter, Jackson quickly showed how comfortable he is with the offense by cutting behind the defense for a layup, then a couple minutes later throwing an awesome pass to Scola, who unfortunately missed. It was like BJ had been playing in the lineup for weeks.
* Landry hit one of his longest jumpers of the season at the 7:23 mark of the second quarter when he faked like he was going to pass, which made his defender bite and gave him the wide-open shot opportunity.
* At the 5:24 mark in the second quarter, Luther took it strong to the hole, elevated, was bumped in mid-air by a defender, so double-clutched the ball, then shot it off the glass for a layup! That shot made everyone in the house drop their jaw! No one thought Luther had that kind of acrobatic play in him, and McGrady even jumped off the bench, screaming and waving his towel not believing what he just saw!
* In the 3rd quarter with 8 minutes remaining, Scola was blocked down low, but grabbed the blocked shot underneath the rim, then saw Alston was wide open behind the 3-point line, threw it out to him wisely, and Alston drilled it to make it 59-54.
* On the next possession, Scola took it strong to the hole along the baseline for a beautiful layup! He is fearless going to the rack, just like Landry!
* With his high knee-length socks, quick first step and the ability to hit the three, Jackson has a little bit of Jason Terry in him, which is fine with me since the Mavericks’ Terry always gives the Rockets headaches. It would be nice to give them a taste of their own medicine under this new look Rocket team.