A picture is worth a thousand words. By the looks of it, Yao wants a playoff rematch against Utah in 2009 when the Rockets will be playing with a full deck. Wouldn’t we all.
In a playoff series where the Rockets had gone so far pushing the series to 6 games by overcoming many obstacles, like:
– Yao’s injury
– Andrei Kirilenko‘s late-game flop the refs bought involving Luis Scola, as well as others
– Terrible officiating in general
– Tracy McGrady‘s disappearing act in the fourth quarter in Games 1 & 2
– Rafer Alston missing Games 1 & 2 because of a hamstring injury
– a bad shot by Utah off the side of the backboard in the closing minute that got a lucky bounce and resulted in a game-winning shot for them
…the Rockets couldn’t overcome the final blow Friday night – Alston severely spraining his ankle in the second quarter and missing the rest of the game. That injury would be the final straw that broke the camel’s back, leading to a 113-91 loss. At least this loss was only about half as bad as the 40-point loss the Rockets suffered in 2005 in Game 7 against Dallas.
Although the Rockets showed heart by cutting a 19-point deficit in the first half down to 1 point late in the second quarter, the loss of their floor general was so devastating, it really showed in the 3rd quarter when they only made 4-of-22 shots.
To make matters worse, without Alston in the game on defense, his absence helped his counterpart Deron Williams go off in the 3rd with 13 points, including 4-of-5 three-pointers, opening the Jazz lead up again to 20 points entering the 4th quarter.
The 4th quarter was merely a formality as the Rockets were visibly deflated and played out their final game of the season.
If you’re bummed about this loss and the fact the Rockets still haven’t won in the first round yet again, you’ve got to look at more than what happened Friday night or even over the past couple of weeks in this series for why they didn’t advance.
Remember that if the Rockets had just won 1 or 2 more games this season, they could have played Dallas or Denver in the first round, much better opponents for them. But noooooooo (with a Steve Martin inflection), they had to finish with a tougher match-up against Utah.
It’s easy to look where the Rockets could have won those extra 1 or 2 games. Maybe earlier in the season when personnel changes weren’t made fast enough, like not starting Luis Scola instead of Chuck Hayes for way too long. Once Scola became the starter like many of us had wanted, the Rockets reeled off 22 wins in a row.
Or how about those late-season losses to Sacramento on April 1st and Denver on April 13th, which were very winnable games? I had been pushing hard for the Rockets to take those games seriously because I knew match-ups against Dallas and Denver were at stake.
Before Game 6, I wrote up some keys for the Rockets to win the game, and needless to say hardly any of them worked out. Here’s how they fared in each category:
* I said that the guard shooting between McGrady, Alston and Bobby Jackson would have to be 43%. McGrady did his part, shooting 50% (13-of-26) for 40 points. But Alston was 2-for-7 before getting hurt and Jackson was 2-of-12 (ouch!). Aaron Brooks got playing time (mainly in the 4th during garbage time) because of Alston’s injury and he was 0-for-5. So outside of McGrady, the guards shot 4-of-24, or 17%. Combine that with McGrady’s shots, and you’ve got 34%, way below the 43% I had set as a goal.
* Fouls. There were many bad calls, like how about that one where 2 Jazz players pulled Scola down to the floor and they called Scola for the foul? There were many other bad calls, but even if they had all gone Houston’s way, the Rockets still played poorly enough in THIS game to lose.
* Shane Battier‘s shooting. He only took 7 shots and made two of them in a game when they could have used more production from him.
* Foul shooting. I wanted 72% and they made only 69.4% (25-of-36).
* Deke. I wanted a handful of shots from Mutombo, and he didn’t end up taking one shot. He also got in foul trouble that took him out of the game early, and had another rebound slip right through his fingers and bounce off his hands for a turnover.
* Luther Head played 7 minutes and put up terrible numbers again, missing both of his shots and getting schooled embarrassingly by Kyle Korver on a post-up move where he faked Head out of his jock and stepped right past him to lay the ball in. Bye Bye Luther. Head is just one more example of a wasted first-round draft pick by the Rockets…right up there with Houston’s 2002 pick of Bostjan Nachbar, 2001’s Jason Collier and Eddie Griffin (Griffin was acquired on Draft Day for 3 first round draft picks), and 1998’s Bryce Drew and Mirsad Turkcan. The Rockets’ 2nd round pick in 2006, Steve Novak, should have received more minutes in this series. He was inserted late and made 3-of-3 shots, including 2-of-2 from 3-point land. His not getting more playing time from coach Rick Adelman was a disappointment. (see related topic above about personnel moves that could have won them 1 or 2 more games).
* Defense. Utah’s 113 points was nowhere near my goal of 85. Williams made 9-of-17 for 25 points. Mehmet Okur torched everyone who tried to guard him with 19 points on 7-of-13 shots, including a 3-pointer where he was wide open on a defensive breakdown. The Jazz had a total of 6 guys score in double-figures. And I keep saying it but it continues to happen: Chuck Hayes may be a decent one-on-one defender, but his help defense is very overrated, just like in last year’s series. Did you see how Paul Millsap easily cut into the paint past Hayes for an easy layup?
* Confidence. After Alston’s injury, it seemed like the Rockets couldn’t recover in the 3rd quarter after losing their point guard for good.
* 4th quarter execution. It didn’t really matter because the game was a blowout by then.
With all that was going against them in the above categories, what really surprised me was Carl Landry having no impact at all with zero points on 2 shots in just 9 minutes. On defense, Millsap schooled him, scoring on him multiple times and even blocking a shot of Landry’s at the rim.
Meanwhile, the Rockets other power forward, Scola, was one of the Rockets few bright spots, hustling for 9 boards and scoring 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting.
Back to Bobby Jackson for a minute. Although he shot poorly in the series except in Game 5, he played the starter’s role for 2 ½ games because of Alston’s injuries. Jackson isn’t a starting point guard, but more of an energy guy, and he didn’t do well as both. Jackson kind of reminds me when the Rockets brought in Sedale Threatt late in the 1997 season when they were hurting for depth at point guard, and they flamed out with him in the first round of the playoffs. Threatt was effective at times, but he wilted down the stretch. You just can’t expect an older player to get you over the hump when playing big minutes in the PG role. Remember when JVG brought in Mark Jackson a few years ago? Same thing. Meanwhile, Bonzi Wells gets to play in the second round for New Orleans. I guess he got the last laugh in that trade.
McGrady played his best game of the season when it counted. He was phenomenal in the first half taking it to the hole many times, and scoring 28 points on 10-of-16 shooting, and that’s even with a missed layup where he could have had 30. He would finish with 40 points, but he got cold in the 3rd quarter missing all four of his shots. As much as I was tempted to blame him for disappearing in that pivotal third quarter, there’s only so much you can ask of a guy who is already doing so much, right? He also had 10 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 turnover.
Because the game was a blowout in the fourth quarter, like in Game 5 when it was a landslide in the Rockets’ favor, we still weren’t able to see if McGrady can play under pressure in a tight game in the fourth quarter. But I think everyone who wants to criticize him at times, like me, can’t say he didn’t step up when the stakes were huge. His stats were there in this very important game. He just had no help.
No matter what happens in the future, this playoff series will forever have an asterisk next to it in my mind because the Rockets were without Yao for the entire series, and without Alston for almost half of it. I don’t mind diminishing what Utah did in this series because IMHO they have too many fans who are a bunch of white trash losers (there, I said it!). I’ve never seen an uglier lot (both physically and class-wise), like when they cheered after Alston sprained his ankle and hobbled to the locker room. That’s just one example of how low-class many of them are. Losers.
Well, that about does it for this season. No doubt I will be blogging occasionally over the coming days and weeks about what the Rockets are doing, or should do, in the off-season. One topic for everyone to ponder is that since McGrady played so well in Game 6 and showed he still has the ability to take over games, do the Rockets try to deal him while his trade value is high and get an emerging scorer and point guard? If so, who should the Rockets try to acquire? It’s that kind of topic that will be interesting to speculate here.
Of course, I’ll also be blogging more about Yao-oriented news as he prepares for the Olympics.
But the other thing I’ll be doing on a personal basis is getting back to a more normal schedule, not watching every Rocket game and blogging about it so late, getting back in shape myself (like Yao) since the schedule takes its toll, and focusing more on my home life and projects around the house that have gone neglected over the past few months. I hope you guys are able to do the same now that the Rockets’ season is over. Make sure to come back every once in awhile, though. It’s going to get exciting as the Olympics draw closer.