I’m still hurting after that loss against Sacramento on Tuesday night and how mediocre the Rockets have played since the 22-winning streak ended.
But Houston’s win against Portland on the road Thursday night makes me hopeful that the Rockets can get back to the way they were playing during their historic run.
They still had times where they struggled, like when they gave up a 16-point lead in the 2nd quarter and eventually fell behind by two points with 3:50 remaining in the third.
At that point, I thought they were ripe for a collapse. And all of this was happening without last year’s rookie of the year – Brandon Roy – playing for Portland because of an injury. Without Roy in the line-up this season, the Blazers had lost 6-of-7 games.
But give credit to Tracy McGrady for finally finding his shot. He had been 5-of-15 by the time the Rockets fell behind by two points, 63-61. But then he exploded by hitting 5 of his next 6 shots to help Houston go on a 13-0 run to finish the third quarter, giving the Rockets a 74-63 lead headed into the fourth.
The Blazers would cut the deficit down to 7 points a couple of times in the fourth, but the Rockets would respond and finished strong to win 95-86.
McGrady was in more of an attack mode in this game, and it made all the difference. On top of the 35 points he scored on pretty decent 14-of-29 shooting and 4-of-6 from three-point territory, he would dish 6 assists.
Rafer Alston didn’t play because of a hamstring, but Bobby Jackson played well in his place, scoring 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting, getting 4 assists, and turning the ball over ZERO times in 23 minutes of play.
Dikembe Mutombo was pretty much being ignored by Portland’s defense, which isn’t a bad gamble most of the time. But the Rockets’ offense made them pay, with Deke scoring a whopping 11 points – 10 points in the first half — to make him their leading scorer by halftime! I don’t think you’ll ever see that happen the rest of his career. Give Mutombo credit for knocking down 4-of-4 free throws in the first half, and 5-of-6 overall.
Shockingly, Luis Scola didn’t score in 25 minutes of play and only had 3 rebounds. Part of the reason was because he picked up 3 quick personal fouls in about 1 ½ minutes at the beginning of the third quarter, giving him four for the game. Things didn’t look good as one of Houston’s top scorers had to go to the bench. But that’s when McGrady stepped up – something that hadn’t happened much since the winning streak ended.
In addition to McGrady’s offensive outburst being the difference, the other keys to the win were much better defense (Portland only shot 39.8% with Houston tallying 7 blocks) and bench points.
The Rockets’ bench outscored Portland’s 29-12, led by Aaron Brooks‘ 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting. AB hadn’t played in 6 games, but because of Alston’s injury, he got his shot and played extremely well.
I loved the one play he had near the end of the first half when he hustled for a loose ball that Portland’s Steve Blake and Joel Pryzbilla lazily tried to grab. Brooks’ speed helped him zoom right in between them to tap the ball away, leading him to take it down the length of the court for an easy layup!
Brooks also hit two three-pointers that were nothing but net. Remember that he is considered one of the best 3-point shooters on the team. To make those long-range bombs when he has hardly played since the arrival of Bobby Jackson makes his performance Thursday night even more impressive.
Luther Head also provide some punch off the bench, scoring 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting. One of my favorite shots from the game was when he hit one of the craziest 3-pointers I’ve seen since that wild one Bobby Jackson had a few games ago. Luther elevated while moving hard to his right, double-pumped, then threw it up while his momentum carried him to the right, and swished it as the 24-second clock went off! That made the Portland fans slap their foreheads in disbelief!
The only downside to Luther’s game was the 4 turnovers. As TNT analyst Doug Collins said: just pressure Luther with the ball and watch him struggle.
Speaking of 3-pointers, Shane Battier started the game off making two consecutive 3-pointers from the corner, which helped the Rockets get off to a 6-0 start. All of Battier’s 9 points would come off threes. As a team, Houston was outstanding from behind the arc, making 11-of-22.
Houston is now 50-25 and have only 7 games remaining in their season. They’re tied with Phoenix with the same record, currently hold the 6th seed, and are still only 2 games behind the Spurs for the second seed in the West, and 2 ½ games behind New Orleans for the Western Conference lead.
The big games to watch Friday night will be the Spurs against the Jazz in Utah. Cheer for Utah in that one because if the Spurs lose that game and Houston takes care of business in Seattle, then the Rockets will be 1 game behind the Spurs with 6 games to play. But San Antonio still holds the tie-breaker, so the Spurs would have to lose 2 more times than the Rockets the rest of the way for Houston to overtake them.
The other big game on Friday night is Dallas at the Lakers. Root for the Mavericks in that one because the Rockets could only be ½ game behind the Lakers if LA loses Friday night. Crazy, crazy season.