Okay, I just spent a few hours on a plane earlier today just going through all my thoughts from last night’s game. Forgive any typos: I’m rushed to get this posted before my next flight takes off. None of these are in any particular order. Just random spewing Larry King style:
* For fans who have been following the Rockets all season, I think we’re too close to understand that this streak is bigger than we fully realize. When ESPN starts Sportscenter off with the Rockets’ streak and Jay Leno mentions it in his monologue, you know this is a much bigger deal than we have even realized…
It’s kind of like “continental drift”…like we’re on this Rocket continent that has been moving slowly along the earth’s crust surrounded by ocean waters toward a climate on the planet that fosters lush vegetation, hitting tectonic plates along the way (Hornets, Mavericks, etc.) to create high-rising mountains on its coasts. Then along come some extra-terrestrials (the mainstream media) who fly overhead, look down from their spaceship and are amazed that this part of the planet can be so fantastic. But to us here in Rocketopia, although we’re extremely grateful for this land of ours and its accomplished leaders – Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming – we realize our land has been great all along its trek, and is what we have come to expect.
* Who would have thought earlier this season that games against sub-.500 Eastern Conference teams in March would be anticipated as much as a playoff game in May?
* Emeka Okafor is a stud and I love his game. That’s what makes Dikembe Mutombo’s blocks of him on two consecutive dunk attempts in the final minute so great about Mount Mutombo. I love it when the Rockets signed him a few years ago, and I’m so glad he agreed to come back this season. You can tell his leadership and experience is really helping. What teammate wouldn’t play harder once they receive that “look” of his, either after a bad play they made or a good one? Not only should the Rockets win a ring for Yao, but for Dikembe as well!
* Okay, we know Yao is out for the season, but we need Carl Landry in the worst way. 19 three-pointers Friday night in the first half (making only 4 of them) prove that they miss his inside presence. It’s incredible the Rockets have extended the streak without him in the lineup the past 4 games. I wouldn’t have thought it possible. You’ve got to give major credit for everyone stepping up in his absence (as well as Yao’s). But if Landry plays against the Lakers, the extra shot of adrenaline and confidence he’ll give to his teammates will be sky-high.
* Now that we’ve seen the effect of Yao and Landry not being present down low in the paint, was it worth it to essentially trade Bonzi Wells for Bobby Jackson? Before thinking about it, did you see Steve Novak fail to block out Othella Harrington on an airball, with Harrington easily grabbing the missed shot and laying it in? Could they use Bonzi about now with Landry out?
* The trading away of Bonzi may not be so bad now that the Rockets have another unbelievable roster move under their belt with Mike Harris. So let’s see, now the Rockets are extremely deep at power forward: Scola, Landry, Hayes, and Harris, with Novak giving them that outside scoring threat from the 4-spot.
Harris’ story is so inspirational. He missed making the team by one spot during training camp, then went to China to get some playing time, kept working hard, and always believed that good things come through hard work. Then the Rockets do the right thing and bring him back on a 10-day contract after Landry got hurt, and it pays off big-time with 12 very important and momentum-changing points, most coming from dunks. Before you know it, he is interviewed live on ESPN Sportscenter after the game after only his 3rd NBA game! There is no doubt in my mind he will be signed for the rest of the season. It reminds me so much of Hayes’ story a few seasons ago, and Harris is much better offensively than Hayes. Give credit to Daryl Morey and the coaching staff for finding and rewarding Harris with a 10-day deal when they needed him. He’s making the most of it.
Did you see in the second quarter how high Harris got up to grab that rebound after a missed McGrady 3-pointer, then laying it in over Jason Richardson? He went up so high, he got burned on re-entry!
And how about Harris moving into position on the baseline as McGrady penetrated into the lane, drew a double-team, then catching that great pass from McGrady for a dunk to make it 66-62 a the start of the 4th quarter, thus halting the Bobcats’ 7-0 run.
Then about a minute later, Harris stole the ball, and on the other end of the court he penetrated into the lane, drew a double-team himself, then dished to Chuck Hayes for a score! That made it 70-62 with 10:43 remaining, a big play to give the Rockets more breathing room.
Then 1 minute and 20 seconds later, Harris took it strong to the hole, faked out Okafor, then went up strong for the layup! That made it 72-62 with 9:23 left in the game. RICE UNIVERSITY RULES!
With 7:24 remaining, Mutombo missed the second of 2 free throws, BUT BATTIER HUSTLES AND TIPS IT TO HARRIS WHO THROWS IT DOWN WITH ATHLETICISM CARL LANDRY STYLE! That bucket made it 74-64.
* If I described every great play McGrady had in this game, I would never finish. He had play after play after play, all without any rest.
* I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it many times over and over: Luis Scola is the man! The Rockets are 21-0 since he became a starter. Coincidence or not? Did you see that incredible play when he stripped Raymond Felton of the ball from half-court (amazing that he was guarding their point guard in the first place), grabbed and dribbled it to the hoop, elevated, fought through a hard foul, and laid it in off the glass!
Then 20 seconds later, he decided to closely guard Felton again as he was dribbling it up the court, and Felton gave him a shove to the ribs for an offensive foul and turnover! Scola’s intensity and fist pump gave me chills. I love it when Yao does it, when McGrady does it, when Shane does it, when Tiger Woods does it, and when Scola does it.
And how about Scola’s bounce pass earlier in the game to McGrady who went baseline and threw down that dunk from underneath the rim? Scola can pass, and it’s one of many reasons why the Rockets have been so successful this season. Although I don’t like it when his Argentina team does it against Team USA, when he does it for the Rockets, I love it. In fact, come Olympic time, Scola alone has made me a future fan of the Argentina team, even with the fact he has a flopping teammate I can’t stand (Manu Ginobili).
* Although McGrady made 5-of-8 free throws Friday night, you could just tell how intense he was concentrating from the line, including the two free throws he made in a pressure situation with 5:35 remaining to make it 79-71. He wants to take his free throw shooting to the next level to match what he has done with the rest of his game during the streak. He is really trying to raise his game in all areas like we’ve never seen. Like when he stepped up in the second quarter when he scored 13 of the Rockets 15 points during one stretch.
I wonder how Orlando is feeling about that McGrady trade now?
* How did the Rockets win this game with McGrady, Rafer Alston and Luther Head making only 3-of-21 three-pointers? Also, how did they win missing 9-of-21 free throws, including at least two missed technicals, one by Rafer Alston and another by Battier.
* You’ve got to hand it to Alston for the shots he did make, with many having a high degree of difficulty. Did you see that crazy shot at the end of the second half where he drove into the paint, changed hands with the ball while elevating while on the move, and shot it off the glass for the bucket! Impressive.
Alston also played it very smart when he drew a double-team out on the perimeter, then dished it to Battier in the corner for a big 3-pointer that gave the Rockets a 50-47 lead with 7:06 remaining in the 3rd quarter.
Then he made two shots in a row later in the third quarter when he scored on a teardrop off the glass to make it 56-52, Rockets. His second bucket came when took it strong to the hole to make the score 58-54.
* Although Luther Head was only 1-of-7 from the field with two assists, he seems to come up with a big play when the Rockets need it. With the Rockets down by their biggest deficit (13 points) midway through the second quarter and with the game getting out of control, Luther penetrated into the lane and dished to Scola for a layup. That made it 33-22, then on the next Rockets possession, McGrady hit a 3-pointer, cutting the deficit to eight points, 33-25. I wrote down those two plays as being pivotal turning points to the Rockets’ comeback. A couple of minutes later, Luther tipped in a miss by Scola, which was HUGE in cutting the deficit to six points, 37-31. There’s just something especially exciting to me when Luther scores. He seems to do it in spectacular fashion, and at the right time.
* Shane Battier blew an easy layup late in the first quarter when things were going south for them, but then made up for it later with plays so typical of Battier. Like at the start of the 2nd quarter when he missed a 3-pointer from the left corner, but hustled toward the basket, grabbed the rebound, elevated, shot it, scored and was fouled! Then he let out a huge yell and fist pump. I love it when understated players show the intense side of themselves (re: McGrady, Tiger, Scola as mentioned before). It adds so much to the game!
How about that play from Battier where he bats a Bobcat pass, hustles after the ball before it goes out of bounds, throws it toward mid-court, Alston grabs it, takes it strong to the hole, misses, but Scola grabs the rebound and scores! Battier was the catalyst in the second half to several points coming off pure hustle.
And how about Battier running out on a fast break after Dikembe blocked Matt Carroll’s shot, leading to a fast break layup by Battier? (Why did the FSN director decide to focus in on Deke’s finger wag while a fast break was heading up the other way? We missed the pass leading to Battier’s layup).
* Going through this pressure cooker of the streak should really help them come playoff time.
* Sunday’s game could go a long way to determine who wins the MVP. I think history has shown that when voters think about who they vote for, given everything else is just about equal (like team records), voters take a look at individual match-ups. If McGrady and Kobe’s stats are about the same, whichever team wins Sunday’s game might have a leg up on the MVP voting. Remember that votes are cast before the playoffs begin (or at least progress too far).
* My $179 NBA League Pass subscription has been one of the best investments I ever made. I’ve got to think the NBA has made a lot of money from displaced Rocket fans around the country buying the package during this streak. Factoid: the best investment I ever made was buying a Rockets mini-season ticket plan back in 1993 when they won 14 in a row. I knew I had to lock myself in with that option to buy playoff tickets. Because of that move, I got to see every playoff game during their two championship seasons, some of the most fun times of my life.
Just think of all the fans who bought season tickets during the off-season expecting big things from the bold “It’s Time” marketing campaign, only to see their investment seemingly go to waste when they started underachieving, then get resurrected again during this win streak. What a rollercoaster!
* Do the Lakers have as many non-superstar players who are intense as Battier, Scola and Landry? Let’s see: Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Vladimir Radmanovic, DJ Mbenga…I don’t think so. Derek Fisher, Rony Teriaf – maybe. I think the Rockets’ intensity from their role players will be the difference on Sunday.
* It’s such a pity that there isn’t anything profound being said by Clyde Drexler that the mainstream media can pick up on in their sound bites. Can you imagine what Calvin Murphy might be saying on the air these days given the streak? The only beneficiary of Clyde’s massive overstating-of-the-obvious has been Bill Worrell, whose voice has been getting lots of airplay on ESPN lately since Drexler offers nothing.