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Rockets grind up Grizzlies to sweep February

March 1st, 2008
by John
Yao Ming talks with Tracy McGrady before the Rockets try to win their 14th game in a row that would give the team an undefeated record for February.  'Mission accomplished' as Houston soundly beat the Grizzlies 116-95.  Earlier in the day, Yao Ming flew to Charlotte, North Carolina to get a second opinion of his injury from another doctor, then returned the same day to cheer his team to victory.Yao Ming talks with Tracy McGrady before the Rockets try to win their 14th game in a row that would give the team an undefeated record for February. ‘Mission accomplished’ as Houston soundly beat the Grizzlies 116-95. Earlier in the day, Yao Ming flew to Charlotte, North Carolina to get a second opinion of his injury from another doctor, then returned the same day to cheer his team to victory. Click here for more photos of Yao before the game.

There’s something about this Houston Rockets team that is unique from many previous editions. For example, there was a time when you had to get nervous about them reaching a milestone (like winning all the games in a month, or lay claim to the longest winning streak in an NBA season), even against a poor team like Memphis. Like most Houston teams (except for a few exceptions), they just couldn’t stand too much prosperity, right?

Not these Rockets. Houston took care of business and put the Memphis Grizzlies away early by exploding with a fast break offense, and clamping down on defense to take leads of 14-0, 20-2, and to lead 37-17 by the end of the first quarter. After that, the Rockets cruised to a 116-95 victory to win their 14th game in a row.

Since the 1991-92 season, only five other NBA teams have won all their games in a month. They also beat Portland’s 13-game winning streak earlier this season. Houston’s victory Friday night positions the Rockets to tie a franchise record of 15 in a row Sunday night against Denver.

The way the Rockets are playing, you’ve got to be as confident as you can be they will deliver on tying that record as well as break the franchise record against Indiana on Wednesday March 5th.

All this success lately makes you take a look back at all the acquisitions and draft picks the Rockets have made to build their current roster, and how almost all of them have turned out as good as could be expected. It would be hard to name one player who has underachieved during this 14-game streak. From Yao to Luis Scola to Carl Landry to Dikembe Mutombo, all the way down to Aaron Brooks and Steve Novak (too numerous to name everyone).

The only rough spot the Rockets encountered against the Grizzlies Friday night occurred in the second quarter when Bobby Jackson and Luther Head were put into the game and started settling for jumps shots, which helped contribute to the Rockets getting outscored 15-6 to cut their lead down to 11 points.

But the Rockets got things going again by the least expected player of them all – Chuck Hayes – when he made 2 free throws (with better shooting form) and then hit a turnaround jump hook in the lane to expand the lead to 15. That would be the start of a 17-9 run to give the Rockets a 60-41 halftime lead. From then on, it was all Rockets as they broke open a 28-point lead in the second half to coast to the victory.

One other preventable moment that occurred with the game still somewhat in question was when Rafer Alston started hot-dogging at the end of the first quarter when he had a clear lane to the basket for a layup on a fast break, but instead opted to throw a very difficult alley-oop pass over a Memphis defender for a dunk. The pass was easily intercepted for a turnover.

Anytime a player starts passing up wide-open layups in the first quarter to try to get on the highlight reel peeves me that he can lose control like that to make the right play. I don’t mind a little showmanship, like when he later threw a beautiful fake pass to open up a lane to the basket for a layup. But to pass up a wide-open LAYUP that everyone in the arena saw is inexcusable.

I won’t go into all the stats in this game since the Rockets dominated in every area, which was to be expected against a team that had lost their last 6 games in a row, 12 of 13, and were playing without their best player, Mike Miller. The big overall Houston stat I’ll mention is their impressive 24 assists on 41 field goals.

I will mention a couple of interesting tidbits, though. First, Carl Landry rocked it again in the fourth quarter, igniting the crowd with 3 amazing, powerful dunks. I can’t think of another rookie power forward in the past (or any PF, for that matter) who has been as explosive as Landry by going over and through defenders for throw-downs.

All of his dunks were incredible, with one coming after he posted up on a much shorter Kyle Lowry, then spinning toward the basket for a one-handed jam. That move made me want to name that dunk, “The Landry spin cycle.” Get it?

It’s gotten to the point now that when Landry enters a game, you can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. On top of all the excitement on Friday, he made all 5 of his shots and all 5 of his free throws for 15 points.

Another tidbit is that Shane Battier picked up the first technical foul in his career after he was pushed in the stomach by the guy he was guarding (can’t remember exactly who it was, but he’s not well-known) and didn’t take kindly to it. He approached him and started jawing at him, and the referee was pretty weak to have called a tech on him. I’ve seen much meaner players get by with worse.

Battier hustled all game long getting back on defense and rejecting at least a couple of shots from behind, finishing with 4 blocks. Battier’s really stepping up in Yao’s absence by helping out in the blocks department, and also looking to take more shots. He finished with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting, and also grabbed 7 boards.

Dikembe continues to amaze with his length and perfect timing in blocking 4 shots in only 17 minutes, about half the minutes Battier played. Anytime Deke blocks a shot, the crowd reaction is so overwhelming, it’s the equivalent of a slam dunk on offense.

All I have to say is I’m going to savor all the blocks for the rest of the season because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better shot blocker other than Hakeem. How fortunate Houston is to have had some of the best centers who have ever played the game.

Mutombo also finished with 13 rebounds. As I mentioned in this post a few days ago, I was confident that Mutombo would make up for Yao’s absence on the boards.

Luther Head had a poor game shooting, only hitting 3-of-11 shots from the field, but he did make 7-of-8 free throws to finish with 15 points.

Tracy McGrady finished with the stats you hope to get from him – 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. He made lots of outside shots, which I’m not too crazy about him taking. But I am starting to track the outside shots he misses, and in this game I counted 4.

Some other fourth quarter excitement came when Aaron Brooks, on a fast break, jumped into the air at mid-court, then while suspended in mid-air threw a one-handed pass between two defenders to new Rocket Bobby Jones for a dunk. I knew Brooks could get to the hole quick as lightning, and could score, but didn’t know he could pass like that…and with flair.

One thing I’m going to try to do the rest of the season is point out in these game summaries the areas where I think Yao’s presence could have hurt or help the Rockets. For this game, Yao obviously wasn’t needed since they did just fine without him.

However, the one area where I think he could have made a difference was when Dikembe was out of the game. During that time, the Grizzlies quick and strong point guard Kyle Lowry repeatedly took it to the hole and was a force the Washington Wizards clearly didn’t have in their loss to Houston Tuesday night.

Lowry would finish with 18 points, and I would bet most of the points he scored in the paint came after he blew by Rafer Alston and went up against the Rockets’ smaller front line of Scola and Hayes.

I had mentioned in this same (aforementioned) post a few days ago that without Yao, my main concern on defense is when Dikembe exits the game, the remaining minutes he’s out could be a problem when the Rockets go up against teams with very quick guards who take it strong to the rack…like maybe Allen Iverson on Sunday?

It will be interesting to see if Scola, Hayes and Landry can be a defensive stopper when Dikembe isn’t in the game and Iverson blows by Alston. You might see Aaron Brooks get some time defending AI, like in their previous match-up, since he’s one of the few guys in the league who can keep up with him.