I am almost out of adjectives to describe how well the Rockets are playing and continuing to improve, even as they keep winning.
Victorious for the 15th straight time Sunday night against a decent Denver Nugget team fighting for playoff position, you just have to savor what we’re witnessing and realize that it may be a very long time until we see something like this happen again (maybe another 14 years?).
It’s one thing to SAY it, but it’s another to SEE it as represented in the standings below…note how Houston’s streak stands out from all the other Western Conference team’s streaks, as well as being ahead of Phoenix and Dallas (barely) for 5th place in the West (for now). When is the last time you saw that?
Sure, the Rockets have benefited the past few weeks to have played 12 of their last 15 games against cupcakes, but they deserve it since they played such a tough schedule at the beginning of the season. A little bit of luck has been involved in scraping out victories against Seattle and Sacramento during this stretch, but you’ve got to hand it to them for beating good teams like Golden State, New Orleans and Denver. Later this month is when the schedule gets much tougher again, so savor this streak while you can.
During their run, they have continued to get better with everyone raising their game, especially in the last 3 games with Yao Ming out because of his injury. [Note: Yao wasn’t at Toyota Center during the game because of the early morning surgery he’ll have on his foot Monday morning].
For the first few minutes of Sunday night’s game, though, it looked like the better level of competition and the absence of Yao was finally going to catch up with them.
The Rockets started off slow by shooting 1-for-7 from the field, settling for perimeter shots because they no longer had their 7’6″ low-post dominator in the paint.
They also turned the ball over 7 times in the game’s first 9 minutes, three by Tracy McGrady as Denver aggressively played the passing lanes to pick off 3 of his passes (two in the first 1:40 of the game). Luis Scola was also uncharacteristically stripped of the ball 3 times in the first quarter, so you knew the Rockets were in for their toughest dogfight in quite some time.
But then perhaps the presence of champions like Vince Young and Roger Clemens at courtside, and a national TV audience, finally kicked in to inspire the Rockets to play at a higher level. McGrady started to heat up by BANKING a long two-pointer off the glass for a score over Carmelo Anthony to give the Rockets their first lead, 16-14.
On the next possession, Shane Battier hit a 3-pointer to make it 18-17. Right after that, McGrady took Eduardo Najera to school 1-on-1 from the perimeter by blowing past him for a throw-down dunk! Then 40 seconds later on the final possession of the quarter, McGrady blew by Anthony and ball-faked a behind-the-back pass to throw off NBA Defensive MVP Marcus Camby for a layup.
McGrady would finish with 22 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists, but it seemed like more. He’s had bigger stats in other games, but the way he took control to facilitate open shots for his teammates, and continually elevated to hit jumpers reminiscent of his scoring title days — and to do it on such a big stage (tie the franchise record of 15 wins, ESPN audience) — well, this could have been one of his finest games this season, even with 6 turnovers.
McGrady’s layup against Anthony and Camby gave the Rockets a 21-18 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Rockets would extend their lead to 50-40 by halftime, and open up a 16-point lead in the third. The Nuggets would cut the deficit to 9 points at the end of the third after J.R. Smith hit 2 consecutive three-pointers, the second coming on a impressive fadeaway as he was falling out of bounds.
But Battier showed even more of his value without Yao in the lineup by hitting 3-of-4 shots in the fourth quarter, including 2 three-pointers. The second trey with 8:01 remaining gave the Rockets a 90-75 lead, and the Rockets coasted the rest of the way.
It’s clear that Shane has been looking more for his shot in Yao’s absence, taking 15 shots Sunday night, 10 of them 3-pointers (making 5 of them) to score 20 points. I remember seeing him in Austin during training camp staying late after practice to work hard on those shots. I’m sure all that extra work since then is the reason it’s been paying off lately.
Battier’s defense was just as valuable, blocking 2 shots, drawing a charge, and holding Carmelo Anthony to 19 points on 7-of-17 shots. Shane had hit a dry-spell earlier in the season when everyone was wondering if the trading of Rudy Gay last season was the right thing to do. With what he’s bringing to the table, like shutting down the team’s leading scorer most games and now hitting three-pointers with consistency, it’s funny how you don’t hear those complaints now.
Rafer Alston continues to show he deserves consideration for Most Improved Player of the Year Award by hitting 7-of-15 shots for 16 points (including 2-of-4 three-pointers) and dishing 8 dimes. I thought it was interesting to hear one of the ESPN announcers say that Alston has been playing lately about as good as any other Western Conference point guard. Interesting perspective. I hope this Rafer party never ends.
Luis Scola continued to amaze with his moves around the basket, grabbing 14 boards and scoring 18 points on 9-of-18 shots. I’ve done enough gushing over Scola the past few weeks, so I won’t continue to state the obvious. I just wonder how the Spurs are feeling now about how great Scola is playing for a team that’s only 2 ½ games back in the standings?
Along with Scola, Carl Landry helped provide as much help in the low-post offensively with Yao’s absence, hitting 5-of-8 shots and scoring 12 points. I liked how ESPN NBA analyst Ric Bucher (who was a sideline reporter for the game) said Denver’s Kenyon Martin commented earlier on Sunday about Landry by reportedly saying, “That dude is no joke.”
I love how the rest of the league is finding out about this rising star the Rockets have (they seem to know about Scola already, and Aaron Brooks will eventually get his time in the spotlight). Finally a Rockets draft pick who is drawing rave reviews nationally! Last time that happened, it was 5 1/2 years ago when you-know-who entered the league.
Luther Head even stepped up by hitting 2-of-3 pointers and scoring 9 points in just 16 minutes. If he had scored one more point, he would have been the Rockets’ 7th player to have scored in double figures.
Last but not least, let’s not forget about the phenomenal “Uncle” Mutombo. He continued to amaze by stuffing the Nuggets 3 times right at the rim for blocks, and of course bringing the house down after each one. The nickname “Uncle” is a nice one, but I don’t think any other nickname suits him better than “Mount” Mutombo because he’ll meet a player at the peak of their ‘climb.’ At halftime McGrady was interviewed and went out of his way to say how Dikembe is playing is “inspirational” to his teammates.
As I mentioned after Friday’s game, after each game I’ll try to state the impact Yao would have had if he had been in the game. For this one against the Nuggets, I think it’s safe to say the Rockets would have gotten off to a faster start than they did instead of falling behind 12-5. The Rockets just had a hard time trying to get something going having to rely on making plays from the perimeter.
I also think with Yao the Rockets would have shot more than 6 free throws. When was the last time you saw the Rockets attempt 6 free throws in a game? That’s another difference Yao brings: even if the refs are blind as they sometimes can be, you know he’s going to get to the line several times.
It’s getting late, so I’ll end it here. But on Monday I’m going to try to recap some of the exciting plays from this game because there were so many of them that are worth re-living.