What a day. After all the drama from this afternoon regarding the shocking news about Yao, there was a game to play against the Washington Wizards Tuesday night. It was probably a good thing for Yao’s teammates to focus on a game right away rather than let any depression and/or doubt get a chance to fester over a day or two.
If there is one small consolation about the loss of Yao (and I do mean small), it probably gives the Rockets even more determination to prove their doubters wrong, like the talking heads on ESPN Tuesday afternoon who were saying the Rockets are now “done.”
I think the Rockets are the only team in history who have had a 12-game winning streak where people have said they have “no chance” to win a ring because of the loss of one player, no matter how great that player is. In essence, they have quickly become a “Rodney Dangerfield” – “no respect, no respect at all.”
Last time I checked, the Utah Jazz don’t have a dominating big man in the middle, and the Rockets have just as much talent as them, yet the Jazz get more respect (they probably don’t get enough IMHO). Almost the same situation with Dallas, too. They don’t have a dominant big man in the paint, and the Rockets roster is probably just as dangerous as theirs.
Another small consolation is that with the Rockets banding together in perhaps an “us against the world” mentality, it takes their mind off the distraction of their winning streak. Suddenly their win streak doesn’t seem as important as proving everyone wrong that they can win without Yao. It’s a slight distinction, with the difference being the streak is something you’re afraid to have end, whereas winning without Yao is something you can’t wait to prove to others you can do. Passive versus active.
Well, the Rockets came out Tuesday night as strong and determined as you could ever hope them to be in beating the Wizards 94-69. Dikembe Mutombo started at center, not Luis Scola or Carl Landry.
Not only did Dikembe score the game’s first basket on a nice spin move in the lane for a layup, but he got the first rebound and set the tone on defense by blocking shots. In the first quarter alone, he blocked 3 shots and energized his teammates to play strong defense and only allow the Wizards to score 12 points in the first quarter.
Deke also made two shots in that first quarter, including a shocking baseline jumper that got everyone off the bench, including Yao who was in street clothes (great to see him on the bench like I had hoped).
Very quickly Deke made Rocket fans feel a little bit better about the loss of Yao.
The one major concern was how Tracy McGrady decided to make his statement about what he’s going to do in Yao’s absence. I didn’t sweat the fact he didn’t take many shots in the first half compared to his normal self, but it was the TYPE of shots he took that really bothered me. Going against conventional wisdom, he decided to jack up 4 jumpers (all of them missed) rather than be aggressive and take it into the paint where there was more room to penetrate without Yao being there. WTF?
McGrady would finish 1-for-5 from the field in the first half, with the lone shot he made being a very long 3-pointer (not my first choice to get going offensively).
If it wasn’t for the great play of his teammates like Luis Scola hitting 5-for-5 in the first half for 10 points, Luther Head making 4-of-7 for 11, and Rafer Alston shooting 3-of-4 for 7 points to help build a 51-23 halftime lead, more scrutiny would have been applied toward McGrady. Like…why in the world does he continue to not understand that when Yao is out not clogging up the middle and you’re struggling offensively, to take it to the hole?
In the third quarter, the trend continued. On top of that, everyone else started cooling off (Alston also started settling for dumb jumpers), the team started losing its intensity, and the Wizards suddenly cut the Rockets lead to 19 points.
That’s when coach Rick Adelman saw enough and called a timeout, and I think he probably ripped into them because after the timeout, McGrady started attacking the basket. And whaddaya know…it worked! McGrady was fouled a couple of times, then continued to attack to score on a couple of dunks, and drove-and-dished to outside shooters. Amazing how that works. I just wish it didn’t take Adelman to remind him. McGrady would finish the game with 11 points on 4-of-15 shooting.
The fact that McGrady finished with 11 points and the Rockets still opened up a 31-point lead in the second quarter is a testament to the Rockets’ “role” players and their defense, even with the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler out because of injuries
Luis Scola and Carl Landry were everything I wanted them to be with Yao now out, as I posted here before the game. Scola stepped up, making an array of shots and finishing 7-of-7 from the field for 14 points. Incredible. If he keeps playing like this with the basketball world now watching the Rockets closely on how the Rockets fare without Yao, Scola could become a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate…
…or maybe even his teammate Carl Landry, who was all over the place hustling after rebounds. A couple of times Landry grabbed the ball in traffic and elevated quickly to throw down some dunks, but the refs on each occasion blew the whistle to call a jump ball to negate his spectacular effort. Landry would finish with 8 boards and make 5-of-6 shots for 12 points in just 21 minutes.
One of those buckets came off a missed layup from Bobby Jackson on a fast break. Landry hustled down the court to grab the ball off the rim out of nowhere to startle the Wizards around him, then elevated quickly to throw it down! Wow! Later he would take it strong to the hole for a two-handed throw-down where he double-pumped in mid-air for some pizzazz. Wow!
Bobby Jackson had an off night going 0-for-7 from the field, including missing a couple of layups, but his points weren’t really needed, and he did rack up 7 assists in 20 minutes with no turnovers.
Rafer Alston also had 0 turnovers and made 6-of-11 shots for 13 points, which included a Skip-to-my-Lou kind of play in the second half where he penetrated into the lane, faked the defense out by quickly turning his head like he was going to dish a pass, elevated and scooped the ball underhanded with his left hand for a swisher of a bucket!
Luther Head would have a good night by hitting lots of shots, making 4-of-7 by halftime to lead all scorers with 11 points. He would only made 3-of-9 shots in the second half to finish with 18 points. It was a little concerning that he had such a big drop-off like that, including two 3-pointers that were airballs or barely grazed the rim. He also would miss an easy layup. As much as I like Luther, I wouldn’t mind if the Rockets were somehow able to sign Brent Barry who would probably be more consistent from behind the arc where Luther was only 3-of-9 Tuesday night.
Almost every Rocket would have racked up bigger stats if the game had been closer and they were required to play serious minutes. But I’m not complaining. Getting more rest during a blowout is a good thing, too.
You’ve got to hand it to the Rockets’ defense for holding the Wizards to 23 points in the first half, which ties an NBA season low. They don’t really have a point guard who can create problems off-the-dribble and take it to the hole, so that worked in the Rockets’ favor. Arenas and Butler being out also hurts big-time. But this same team beat the Hornets Monday night in New Orleans, so they can’t be all that bad.
Houston’s defense was stifling in the first half with the Rockets blocking 6 shots, out-rebounding them on the defensive glass 27-15, and holding them to 21.3% shooting. It was more of the same in the second half.
Give a lot of credit to Shane Battier for impressively and emphatically blocking 3 shots in the first half and grabbing 9 boards overall. He would finish with 9 points on 3-of-7 shooting. But the plays that impressed me the most and showed how intelligent he is occurred in the third quarter when he realized he and his teammates needed to be aggressive by taking it to the hole, even though it’s really not his game. That’s what Battier did on two straight possessions, faking out his man from behind the 3-point line on the baseline, penetrating into the paint, and dishing to a man for an open shot and score! If only another guard on the team was that wise without having to be reminded.
All in all, I am pleased that the key guys on the front line who will have a lot of pressure on them in Yao’s absence — Scola, Landry and Dikembe — passed the test with flying colors. With the win, I’m not even thinking how it was their 13th straight, but more of a statement that the Rockets can still be a force without Yao.