After watching the Rockets-Kings game on Monday night, I just had to watch the second half and overtime of the Lakers-Kings game on NBA TV because of the playoff implications that game had for the Rockets.
If the Lakers had lost that game like they did on the first night of a back-to-back on Sunday night against the Warriors, then the Rockets would be tied for 1st place in the West with L.A.
Unfortunately, the refs made one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen that basically gave the game to the Lakers (more on that later). That ‘win’ by the Lakers might be the difference of a few spots in the playoff standings for the Rockets down the stretch given how tight the race is in the West.
With other games getting top billing for the night, like Lakers-Warriors and Suns-Pistons, the Houston-Sacramento game was really an afterthought.
It was strange to see one of Houston’s games being so low-profile after every game during the 22-game winning streak seemed to be the top sports story, or their subsequent games after the streak against high-profile teams like the Celtics, Hornets, Warriors and Suns getting plenty of attention, too.
So Houston had to get “up” for a game against a very dangerous team on a Monday night when everyone else interested in the NBA was focusing on other games. It has all the signs of being another let-down game after the streak ended.
But give credit to Houston for taking care of business by beating the Kings 108-100. It wasn’t easy, though.
The Kings are very athletic and always give Houston problems. Remember the “Steve Novak game” in the middle of the win streak when he hit that 3-pointer at the end of the game to keep the win streak alive?
The Kings continued to battle back and make it close each time it looked like the Rockets would pull away after building 10-point leads on several occasions.
The thing that helped the Rockets win this game that was so prevalent during the win streak was the balanced scoring and the stepping up of role players when the chips were down.
All nine of Houston’s players who played scored at least 6 points, with Rafer Alston leading the charge with 28. We all saw what he did against the Lakers on national TV about 8 days ago, hitting eight 3-pointers for 31 points.
This time around, it was more conventional scoring that doesn’t grab headlines, but solid nonetheless. Alston was 9-of-17 from the field, 3-of-6 from 3-point land, and 7-of-8 from the line.
He also had 5 assists, 2 steals, and no turnovers. I’m actually more impressed with this kind of performance from Alston because you feel like these types of stats are more sustainable over time compared to games where he hits 8 three-pointers.
Alston also picked up his team when McGrady was having such a poor game shooting, like in the first quarter when the Rockets realized they were in for a battle when Sacramento took a 12-10 lead. Alston would hit 2 treys in a row to give Houston a 16-14 lead, and that was the boost the Rockets needed to get their offense going.
Alston made sure to do something that McGrady shied away from doing most of the night – penetrate and get high-percentage shots in the paint, or get fouled and go to the line.
McGrady started the game 2-for-12 from the field, settling for lots of jump shots because early in the game he twisted his ankle. He was in obvious pain, but he remained in the game. You could tell it was inhibiting his movement to explode into the lane, so it was “jump shot city” for McGrady the rest of the night.
He finally got his jumper going in the fourth quarter when he hit some big shots to help fend off another Sacramento run, with the biggest coming at the 2-minute mark when he hit a tough fallaway jumper over very good defense from Ron Artest to make it 99-91.
About two minutes on the game clock before McGrady’s big shot, the Kings had cut the lead down to 91-89 after Artest made a layup.
But Carl Landry responded with a sweet layup off the glass, Alston would hit 2 free throws, then would take it to the hole and score on a 9-foot runner from the left baseline to give Houston some breathing room at 97-89.
You’ve got to give credit to the way they made plays down the stretch. They got it done in the fourth quarter on 8-of-14 shooting and an incredible 15-of-18 from the line. For the game, they were 33-of-42 overall from the line for an incredible 79% shooting average. That’s unbelievable considering the Rockets are one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the league (28th out of 30).
The Rockets also only turned the ball over 9 times and shot 50% from the field, but they only made 5-of-17 three-pointers to shoot less than 30% from there.
Where Sacramento really hurt the Rockets was their own shooting from behind the arc, hitting an incredible 9-of-17 from 3-point land, and 52% overall. They got numerous shots in the lane thanks to John Salmons and Francisco Garcia driving it to the hole relentlessy to exploit Houston’s defense to increase that shooting percentage.
Porous defense from Houston has been an alarming trend that we saw emerge last week during the 1-3 record they had against the Celtics, Hornets, and Suns. The effect of Yao Ming not being in the lineup is clearly evident, even against average teams like Sacramento.
But if the Rockets continue to hit free throws at such a high percentage, take smart shots and shoot so well like they did Monday night, take care of the ball like only turning it over 9 times, get a contribution from everyone, and hit clutch shots in the fourth quarter, then the Rockets could still do some damage in the playoffs.
I love it when the Rockets are able to make up for low point totals from McGrady (17 points on 5-of-17 from the field, 7-of-9 from the line) by getting points from role players. Like Chuck Hayes not blowing layups and scoring 10 points, including 4-of-5 from the line with that strange hitch of his. He also played great defense on Artest, who only scored 17 points (after the game, coach Rick Adelman complimented Hayes as being “incredible,” which is really saying something.)
And how about Luis Scola scoring 11 points on 5-of-9 shots, Carl Landry with 6 points (4-of-4 from the line), Dikembe Mutombo with 4 points on 2-of-2 shooting (rather, dunks), Bobby Jackson with 8, and Luther Head with 7 on 3-of-4 shooting? Very nice balance.
Last but not least, the guy who has really stepped up his game during the absence of Yao: Shane Battier. Battier scored 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting, with several coming from baseline hook shots (including one in the fourth quarter when he posted up on Artest) where he wasn’t that strong last season.
Landry and Scola may have received most of the attention for what they have added to the lineup this season, but Battier and Alston’s improvement on offense (as well as the defense that Shane plays against top scorers) is right up there on being large difference-makers in Yao’s absence.
Refs rob Warriors and impact West standings
So if you haven’t seen the play in the Lakers-Warriors game where Derek “the flopper” Fisher pulls Monta Ellis on an inbounds play with 4 seconds remaining in overtime — and stupid ref Bob Delaney falls for it and calls a CHARGE on Ellis — then you’re missing one of the worst calls in recent history.
That blown call gave possession to the Lakers when it should have been a foul on FISHER with two free throws going to Ellis to tie the game up. Instead, that terrible call gave the ballgame to the Lakers.
How a ref could call that kind of foul in one of the best games of the season is beyond me. It was an incredible game where the Warriors went on a 10-1 run to tie the game in the final minutes to send it into overtime. With so much riding on this game for other teams packed at the top of the standings in the West, mark this travesty down if the Rockets finish one game behind the Lakers in the standings at the end of the season.
Although every team that will make the playoffs in the West is tough, it’s starting to become clear there is a distinct advantage to being the #1 or #2 seed in the West. With Dirk Nowitzki‘s ankle injury that will sideline him indefinitely, I’ve got to think that Dallas will continue to struggle even more. Even when Nowitzki comes back in time for the playoffs, I think the Mavericks’ chemistry will be a mess…if they are lucky enough to be the 7th or 8th seed.
I also like the Rockets’ chances against the Warriors and Nuggets if they finish 7th or 8th and the Rockets get the #1 or #2 seed. I don’t look forward to seeing the Rockets playing Utah, San Antonio, or Phoenix. To avoid them, I think they cannot finish 3rd, 4th, 5th, or 6th, or it will spell trouble for Houston.
Final note: Fisher has been flopping for years in crunch time, and he continues to get away with it. Sickening. He might be a nice guy off the court, but he’s right up there with Manu Ginobili and Joakim Noah on my all-time hate list.