As confident as the Rockets are heading into Friday night’s Game 6 in Utah, it’s almost impossible to predict what’s going to happen. So many times the Rockets have entered this same kind of situation with confidence, only to have their dreams shattered very quickly.
The most notable example was 3 years ago in early May 2005. That’s when they played a Game 7 in Dallas after having blown out the Mavs in Game 6 at home, just like the Rockets did Tuesday night in Game 5 against the Jazz in Houston. We all know what happened in that Game 7 when the Rockets got blown out by 40 points. I was at that game, and it was one of the most disappointing performances you could ever sit through. I guess after that experience I’m scarred for life and will always expect the worst in a similar situation.
If I were to envision what’s going to happen in Utah Friday night, I think the Rockets will play much better because they learned much about playing under pressure during the 22-game winning streak this season. Also, Tracy McGrady‘s experience in these situations multiple times in his career has got to start paying off.
I also think that Luis Scola has figured out how to play more effectively in this series. In Game 1, he seemed to be getting blocked all over the place, but in Game 5 he showed an improved ability to get his shot off around the rim without getting rejected. It figures that the smart and crafty Argentinian would make adjustments within the series. Carl Landry is also back to his old self.
These two guys being the lineup gives the Rockets a much better chance that last season when all they had was Chuck Hayes. So the Rockets are solid at the power forward position. Here are the factors where you’re not sure, and to me are the key factors in this game in no particular order:
– Guard shooting. If Rafer Alston, Bobby Jackson and Tracy McGrady can shoot for a decent percentage, like 43% or more as a trio, then they should win. If one of them slips in shooting, then the chances go down much further. If two of them shoot poorly, they will lose.
– Fouls. If Scola gets in foul trouble, that could spell trouble because they need him in the fourth quarter. With a few other playoff series now being over, the pool of referee talent for the league to choose from for this game has improved dramatically. No more sub-standard refs like Tony Brothers. But no ref is immune from buying Utah’s flops or not calling them for obvious fouls.
– Shane Battier‘s shooting. If he’s hitting 3-pointers from the outside, watch out.
– Foul shooting. The Rockets have got to be mentally tough and make their throws. If they shoot less than 70%, it’s going to be an uphill battle. McGrady is going to have to rely on his playoff experience to stay focused, and hit at least 72% of them.
– Deke. We all know Mutombo will play great defense and grab rebounds. But can he make the handful of shots the Utah defense will give to him? Although he was fouled on a few attempts Tuesday night, he still missed makeable chip shots and dunks in Game 5. Every bucket from him is going to be a huge bonus.
– Luther Head. For every 5 minutes he plays, about 4 points will be forfeited either because of blown layups, bricks for 3-pointers, turnovers, or a combination of all three. He should not be played at all.
– Play the same defense they’ve been playing. If the Rockets can just maintain the status quo on D and hold the Jazz to less than 85 points, their chances go up dramatically.
– Confidence. If Houston can tune out the raucous Utah fans when the Jazz are making scoring runs, they will be fine.
– 4th quarter execution. This game will come down to the final few minutes. No doubt. Hopefully the Rockets have learned to play smart and under control when the game comes down to the wire.
No matter what happens, you’ve got to be proud for what the Rockets have accomplished in this series and during the season. And you know they will be even better next season when Yao returns. I can’t wait for his return next season. But there is still lots of unfinished business in 2008 for them to complete.