If you had stopped watching the Rockets since Yao got hurt, or after their 22-game winning streak ended, then you probably missed one of their best games of the season Friday night.
I had written the other day that heading into the final 4 games of the season, I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised if the Rockets could get some quality wins against good teams like Phoenix, Utah and Denver.
After watching the Rockets Friday night against the Suns, I’m not only pleasantly surprised, I’m ecstatically surprised (if that’s a word). 🙂
Opening up a double-digit lead in the second quarter after falling behind 13-2, I can’t believe how badly they beat the big bad Suns with Shaq, Nash, Amare, Barbosa, and everyone else they have.
With a dominating 101-90 win in a game that meant alot to both teams for playoff seeding purposes, just like that, the Rockets have won five games in a row and are only 1 game behind New Orleans for first place in the West.
I thought this was going to be another game in which the Suns run the Rockets ragged. But Houston stayed tough and didn’t get down on themselves when they were getting killed to start the game. They not only got their offense turned around by going on a 14-3 run to tie the game at 16-16 and take over from there, but they also turned up their defense with their best defensive player — Shane Battier — sidelined with a sore foot.
On top of that, they were able to overcome a poor shooting night from his replacement in the starting lineup, Luther Head, who only scored 4 points (2-of-8 shooting) and starting point guard Rafer Alston only scoring 5 points on 2-of-11 shooting.
How in the world were they able to overcome numbers like that, as well as the loss of Battier?
There were several reasons…
Houston’s bench was outstanding, scoring 43 points led by Houston’s Carl Landry, a powerful counter to Phoenix’s Amare Stoudemire. Landry scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and grabbed 7 boards in just 19 minutes of action. He got a couple of buckets grabbing offensive rebounds and powering them back up over Boris Diaw, no slouch of a player himself.
Landry also showed great ball-handling skills by taking it strong to the glass, one for a wicked layup high off the glass (where did that awesome move come from?) and another where he crossed his man over, took it to the hoop, and got fouled.
If Landry continues to play like he did Friday night and during the 22-game winning streak, then the Rockets’ chances to do some damage in the playoffs goes up significantly.
Another bench player that gave the Suns fits was backup point guard Bobby Jackson, who scored 13 points. His veteran leadership was obvious in this game, picking his spots carefully for when to attack, and shooting for a high percentage: 6-of-10 shots. That trade to get him from the Hornets isn’t looking bad at all these days, even with Bonzi Wells playing decent for New Orleans.
Aaron Brooks injected his speed into the Rockets attack. Steve Nash couldn’t keep up with him as he finished with 7 points on 3-of-4 shooting, including an amazing fake pass on a fast break that completely fooled Grant Hill, giving Brooks the easy lay-in. Just as important, it got the Houston crowd on its feet!
Like Landry, if Brooks can provide quality minutes in the playoffs like he did Friday night, then the Rockets are going to be tough to beat in the playoffs.
Throw in nice contributions from Chuck Hayes (4 points, 2-of-3 shooting) and Steve Novak (5 points, 2-of-3 shots), whose wide-open 3-pointer brought the house down, and you’ve got the Houston bench hitting 19-of-28 shots. Unbelievable.
The Rockets got strong contributions from 3 of their starters. Tracy McGrady started off slow by scoring 5 points on 2-of-8 shooting in the first half. But like he has done much over the past few weeks, he turned it up in the second half, scoring 10 points in the 3rd quarter and finishing with 22 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds.
Dikembe Mutombo scored 8 points on 3-of-3 shooting, including a jumper from the elbow that hit nothing but net! He also had all of Houston’s blocks (3), including one against Amare Stoudemire and another against Shaq.
But the guy who was responsible for getting the Rockets back in the game after they fell behind by 11 points to start the game was Luis Scola. I couldn’t believe how much he scored over Stoudemire down in the low post. As scary as Stoudemire is offensively (37 points Friday night), neither he nor Boris Diaw were able to stop Scola as he posted up and scored on several hook shots in the lane. Scola would finish with 19 points on 9-of-15 shots along with 5 rebounds.
Meanwhile, Steve Nash would only finish with 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting. Never in a million years would I have thought Nash would have stats like that. He’s human after all! He did have a game-high 9 assists, though. But I’ll take those numbers any day from him.
I’ll also take numbers like 3 points from starting shooting guard Raja Bell, who hit only 1-of-6 shots, and starting small forward Grant Hill scoring 2 points on the same 1-of-6 shooting. And Leandro Barbosa only scoring 10 points and Diaw four. Chalk up those numbers to Houston’s tight defense, and they did it all without Battier! That’s one of the reasons why I think this is one of Houston’s most impressive wins of the season.
Houston’s strategy seemed to limit the damage Phoenix’s perimeter guys would do, and let Shaq do his thing in the paint. Shaq finished making 7-of-12 shots for 16 points and 11 rebounds, but he also had 5 turnovers.
Above all, Stoudemire was the scariest guy to handle, who was an absolute monster in the paint with his 37 points and 11 boards. In my opinion, he has taken over as being the most unstoppable player in the league.
The Rockets’ chances of trying to get homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs have been improving over the last week. They are taking care of business beating the teams they are expected to beat, and they beat one of the West’s best teams Friday night.
They’ve also been getting a lot of help this week, with Dallas beating the Lakers, Phoenix beating San Antonio, Dallas beating Utah, and on Friday night, the Lakers beating the Hornets.
With a little bit more help, they still have a chance to win the West, but don’t count on it. I think they’re either going to play Utah or Phoenix in the first round. My choice is to play the Jazz. I would think the Rockets will play at a higher level against the Jazz in order to get revenge after they bounced them out of the first round last year.
I’m going to end it here since it’s getting late, but there were some other things about this game that I still want to comment about (including the ceremony for Hakeem Olajuwon at halftime), but I’ll probably write more about it by late Saturday night.