I was really looking forward to seeing Minnesota’s Al Jefferson play the Rockets Saturday night in Houston. I’ve remembered in recent seasons how he has been pretty good, but this season we’ve all heard how he’s stepped up his game to an even higher level, so let’s see what he’s got.
No doubt, Big Al delivered and was incredible. He torched the Rockets with 17 points on 8-of-12 shots and 8 rebounds in the first quarter alone, hitting several jumpers that pulled Yao out of the paint trying to defend him.
Seeing Yao outside of the paint having to defend against Jefferson’s J’s was a bit precarious since it seemed Al could blow by Yao with relative ease, but he didn’t have to because his jumper was falling just fine.
With the way it was playing out, it looked like Yao — who started the game missing his first 4 shots — was going to have to start thinking about getting some real competition for the Western Conference’s best center the rest of his career. Jefferson would finish Saturday with 36 points on 16-of-30 shots, and 22 boards.
Well, Jefferson might be one of the rising centers in the West who will give Yao a run for his money, but through his own play, Yao made a statement Saturday night that no one should forget about him just yet.
Yao throws one down against the entire Timberwolves team. Click here for more photos from the game.
Yao would hit 12 of his last 14 shots and just about neutralize Jefferson with 30 points of his own to lead Houston to a 107-90 victory. It was a classic duel that reminded me of great Rocket center matchups from years’ past: like Moses vs. Parish, Hakeem vs. Shaq. Now Yao vs. Al.
It was a physical game for Yao. Jefferson banged Yao’s left arm which made Yao feel like his arm was “burning.” Check out the photo>sHere are photos of Yao trying to stop the bleeding.
On this night, though, Rocket fans had more to worry about than who would win the physical bout between Yao and Al. They had to be concerned about winning a game against a team they should beat, which they should have done against Memphis Wednesday night.
At first it looked like it would be no problem as the Rockets jumped out to an early 8-0 lead. But then Jefferson & Co. took over with a 16-0 run while the Rockets missed 11 shots in a row.
As Jefferson was scoring on Yao to build a 24-14 lead, the Rockets called timeout, put Dikembe Mutombo in for defensive purposes — his earliest appearance in a game this season — stuck Ron Artest into the game for Shane Battier to get more scoring punch, and that would help temporarily.
But the Wolves would ultimately build a 37-22 lead, and you had to think what the hell was going on here?
Yao would start getting it rolling midway in the second quarter when he threw a dunk down by exploiting a mismatch over Mike Miller down low, then on the very next possession threw another one down over Kevin Love as Love bounced off of Yao’s chest as he went up strong.
That was the start of Yao getting the ball with more frequency — which he should be getting every night but for some reason doesn’t — and the Rockets’ defense stepping up to key an 11-0 run which got the Rockets back into the game.
Yao even did something defensively you don’t see very much from him. Standing behind Jefferson in the post, he tipped away an entry pass into Jefferson to knock it away for a steal!
Through hustle like that, by halftime, the Rockets had tied the game at 50-50.
In the third quarter, Houston started pulling away, thanks in part to a couple of fast breaks in a row where Rafer Alston would dish to Luis Scola for a layup. On the next one Chuck Hayes would throw a beautiful long outlet pass to Alston that led to a Scola dunk, which got the entire Rockets bench off their feet!
Alston would play one of his best games of the season, finishing with 22 points on an efficient 8-of-10 shooting, including 4-of-4 from three-point land, and 6 assists. What’s nice is that whenever Alston is struggling, many times Aaron Brooks steps in and can pick up the slack, or vice versa.
Brooks would only play 9 minutes and go scoreless because he’s still battling the effects of a stomach flu. It would be nice if Alston could continue playing at a high level like this so he wouldn’t have to be bailed out by Brooks or another teammate. But I’ll take good games like this from him whenever I can get it, and hope he can deliver consistently during the playoffs.
Carl Landry brought tremendous energy by taking it strong to the rack on all of his buckets (5-of-9 shots made) for dunks, igniting the crowd and his teammates like he did so much last season. I don’t mind him taking jump shots like he’s done more often this season. But I much prefer the vintage Landry rattling the rims. The Rockets have missed that this season, especially when Von Wafer doesn’t get that many minutes (4 on Saturday).
Ron Artest played much better than he did Wednesday night, which isn’t hard to do when you hit 1-of-10 from the field. Intent to take smarter shots, he would score 14 on 6-of-12 FG attempts, but he was only 1-of-5 from three-point land. However, he did have 7 boards, 6 assists, and an incredible 27-point ‘+/-‘ differential, highest on the team.
Tracy McGrady was more aggressive in this game, scoring 15 points and leading the team in steals (3) and blocks (2). He made only 6-of-16 shots, but surprisingly made 3-of-4 from downtown.
I don’t know if 6-of-16 is going to keep him off the proverbial trading block, but if the Rockets win decisively like they did this game, and McGrady plays defense like he did, those contributions could be more valuable to the team than him taking shots…and could just about assure he’ll be around through the end of the season, for better or worse.