After each Rockets win during their current winning streak, it has become increasingly difficult to come up with new things to say. You can’t criticize perfection too much. That’s why I decided the other night to make the trip to Houston to attend the Rockets-Hornets game in the flesh since last season’s disappointing Game 7 against Utah.
IF the Rockets were to win Saturday’s game, I wanted to see if there was anything different I could write having been there, especially against a very good New Orleans team.
Well, it was worth the 320-mile round trip drive (at $3.09 cents per gallon, I might add) to watch one of the most exciting regular season games the Rockets have played this season, even during their 18-game winning streak. Rockets 106, Hornets 96.
Absent Carl Landry because of a swollen knee (he should be out only two games, hopefully) the Rockets were now down TWO big men: Yao and Carl.
That meant the other Rockets would have to step up even more, and that coasting to a victory was very improbable. You can only lose so many rotation players before it starts to take its toll. They were going to have to scratch out a win, even with Hornets’ All-Star David West out because of a sprained ankle.
We hadn’t seen it in such a long time because of all the balanced scoring the Rockets have had during the streak, but Houston decided to go back a bit to the “JVG way” of winning games by having one guy put the team on his back. In this case, it would be Tracy McGrady. It was probably the safest bet to get the victory: ride the hot guy, especially if he’s motivated and wants to prove he can be the guy to do it.
Earlier in the day, McGrady learned if the Rockets beat the Hornets that they would move into the third spot in the Western Conference playoff seeding. That was enough for McGrady to do whatever it took to win this game. Coach Rick Adelman knew they would need McGrady to step it up, especially without Landry to keep the Hornets off balance.
McGrady delivered in one of the best performances I’ve seen from him, which is saying a lot given how well he has been playing during the streak. 41 points on 17-of-27 shots. 3-of-8 from three-point land, 9 assists, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocked shots. And he played all 48 minutes.
It was interesting to hear at the end of the game when McGrady stepped to the free throw line to hear “MVP! MVP!” chants from the Houston crowd. I don’t think that has happened since he was introduced to Houston fans at his initial press conference after the Orlando trade. We all know the odds of him winning MVP are virtually impossible given how Kobe has been playing this season. But if Houston were to finish ahead of the Lakers in the West, you never know…
As well as the Rockets are playing, I love how McGrady and others are not getting a big head, not saying anything foolish, and keeping it all in perspective. Here’s what McGrady said:
“Our concentration and focus is really all about the playoffs. We’ve had pretty good runs in the regular season. Not quite like this, but, this is a team that’s won 50 games in the past. It’s all about the playoffs with us.
“The streak is great. We’ll make a little history. But it really doesn’t mean anything.”
Shane Battier, the consummate professional, echoed similar sentiments:
“At this point, the numbers are a little academic. That’s not what’s important, that’s not what’s driving us now. We’re striving to play good basketball and that’s the focus of the team right now.”
In the locker room after the game, everything was fairly low key. Some of the players hadn’t showered yet as they watched the end of the North Carolina – Duke game on a big screen TV. In front of the screen watching intently was Battier, who obviously had a vested interest in the game being a Duke alum. Once that game had been decided, he headed to the showers disappointed his team had lost. That’s just a sample of how the Rockets aren’t getting too full of themselves and celebrating.
The key part of this game that turned out to be the difference, and the most thrilling, was in the second quarter when the Rockets went on the most exciting scoring run (14-0) I can ever remember seeing in person. Maybe it had something to do with me being in the arena and hearing the roar of the crowd, seeing everyone go bananas, and watching the players leaping 10 feet in the air chest bumping each other when the Hornets had to call timeout to stop the bleeding.
You probably all have seen the highlights, but to relive the glory, here’s what happened during that run:
8:40 – McGrady passes out of a double-team to Chuck Hayes in the lane for a layup. 28-28
8:23 – Hayes steals the ball and throws a long pass to Rafer Alston for a layup. 30-28, Houston.
7:28 – McGrady hits a 3-pointer. 33-28, Houston.
6:58 – Alston throws an alley-oop to McGrady for a beautiful dunk! Toyota Center is rockin! 35-28, Houston.
6:16 – Steve Novak hits a long jumper. 37-28, Houson.
5:55 – McGrady is feeling it, and hits a long three-pointer. 40-28, completing the 14-0 run.
That second quarter was as wild as it gets for both teams as they slugged it out from behind the arc. Houston made 9-of-13 from behind the line IN THE SECOND QUARTER to score 39 points, while New Orleans made 7-of-12. In fact, 11 of the last 12 shots made in that quarter were 3-pointers. It was back-and-forth, like watching a tennis match.
It makes you wonder: when one team gets hot from long distance, does it inspire their opponent to try the same? And if both teams are hitting from three-point land, do they keep trying to retaliate until they just start missing? I digress.
That second quarter explosion by Houston gave the Rockets a 59-46 halftime lead. To no one’s surprise, Chris Paul and company wouldn’t go down without a fight, pulling within 5 points near the end of the third quarter. But McGrady’s will carried the team in the fourth as he scored 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting.
What I really liked from McGrady that was subtle near the end of the game was when he took it to the hole on two consecutive possessions to score to hold the Hornets off. You know he had to be tired playing the entire game, yet he didn’t settle for jump shots like he would have done in previous seasons. We’re witnessing the maturing of McGrady before our very eyes.
McGrady isn’t the only one who seems to have grown. Rafer Alston continues to shoot lights out, hitting 7-of-13 shots for 20 points against the Hornets. The basket must look like the size of the ocean right now to Alston, because in my mind it has reached the point when he attempts a 3-pointer, I feel it’s going to go in. Saturday night he hit 4-of-8 treys, with one miss coming as the shot clock expired as he had to hoist a shot a couple of feet from behind the 3-point line to get it off in time.
Alston was in foul trouble most of the night, so Adelman had to save him for the fourth quarter, and once he came back in, he made a big difference. At the 7:04 mark, he sliced through the Hornets’ defense by scoring on a coast-to-coast layup to give them a 95-83 advantage. CP3 would respond with a 3-pointer, then on the next Rockets’ possession, he hit a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 98-86, not his usual spot. Those buckets were huge.
Before the game I was concerned that Landry’s absence was going to be a problem, but McGrady made up for his missing points by scoring his 41, and Chuck Hayes filled in admirably on the boards with 9 rebounds to lead the team. He also made 3-of-3 shots, most coming off McGrady dishes as Hayes broke off pick-and-rolls a couple of times with his defender never following him, leaving him wide open for layups. Hayes also had 3 steals.
Also stepping up in Landry’s absence was Steve Novak, who hit 3-of-5 shots including 2-of-3 treys. Because New Orleans’ David West was out with the ankle injury, the Rockets didn’t have to worry about defending his replacement Ryan Bowen, the former Rocket who we know is offensively ‘challenged.’ That gave Novak a chance to thrill the crowd with his 3-pointers.
It’s hard to believe that Luis Scola only scored 6 points on 2-of-7 shooting because when he did score, they seemed to come when the Rockets really needed them (with one being a crafty move around the basket), and he was active as always on the boards by grabbing 8 of them.
Although Luther Head was only 3-of-9 from the field with 9 points, he was 3-of-7 on treys. And Battier scored in double figures, hitting 4-of-9 shots for 10 points and 2-of-6 from three. Collectively, the Rockets shot 14-of-34 from behind the arc (41.2%) and 50% overall. They also had 27 assists and 42 field goals. The ball continues to move.
The only Rocket that had a very disconcerting night was Bobby Jackson. After his fantastic debut with the Rockets, he has been awful. Saturday night he started off great by chasing down Chris Paul from behind and stripping the ball from him, then following up with a long two-pointer. But after that, he missed all 6 of his remaining shots to finish 1-for-7 from the field – another poor shooting night – including missing 2 easy layups.
As I heard Clyde Drexler say astutely (a rarity) during the broadcast (there was a TV next to me as I watched the game) – “In the NBA you cannot afford to miss layups and stay in this league.”
Jackson also had 3 turnovers Saturday night in just 17 minutes. It’s becoming more clear the Hornets knew what they had (or didn’t have) when they traded Jackson away to the Rockets. Bobby Jackson is starting to remind me of Mark Jackson during the JVG era. Even though he had 5 assists, at this rate I have a feeling that Aaron Brooks could be getting more playing time soon. It happened after Steve Francis and Mike James couldn’t cut it, and it may be happening again.
It’s amazing the Rockets are now ahead of New Orleans for the 3rd seed in the West. A few weeks ago I never thought it could be possible. I’ve never seen a team make up ground like this in my 30+ years of following NBA basketball. I guess winning 18 in a row will do that. Is this too good to be true?
One more win against the New Jersey Nets, and the Rockets will have won 19 straight – something even the New England Patriots weren’t able to do this year.
It’s getting late here at Toyota Center and I’m the last person in the press room, so I better get out of here.