I never thought I’d say an ugly win could be so beautiful as it was Tuesday night when the Rockets beat the Blazers 98-94.
Houston had blown a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter with less than 6 minutes remaining, a lead that got whittled down to 2. But rather than collapse like they did several times before the All-Star break, this time the Rockets found a way to win.
Rather than jump on them and lament how the team continues to struggle in putting teams away like they did so many times this season with McGrady and Alston, it’s hard to do that this time. That’s because we know they finally have a cancer off their team that will allow their healthier “cells” to grow over the time.
Also because they’ve got a starting point guard who can actually hit big shots and free throws down the stretch, like Aaron Brooks did by draining 2 big free throws to make it 94-90 with 21.5 remaining.
The rest of the way the Blazers fouled Ron Artest twice, and like a true superstar, he hit his free throws when the chips were down. Those 4 FTs were a majority of the points the Rockets would score (7) in the last six minutes, all coming from FTs.
Artest may not have had the best shooting night (5-of-13), but he made 9-of-10 free throws on his way to a team-high 20 points. He also had 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and only 1 turnover.
Two of my favorite plays from the night involved Artest when he did a pick-and-roll with Luis Scola in the lane, dumping it off to him for a layup. Then later, Artest grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled it coast-to-coast on a semi-fast break to the other end, and dumped it off to Scola for another layup! It’s rare to see a player this versatile: a burly small forward who can play power forward and post-up in the lane, or start in the backcourt with Brooks and be dishing dimes on fast breaks.
Scola would finish with 15 points on 5-of-9 shots, plus 11 rebounds, including 2 or 3 in the clutch that kept Houston possessions alive and staved off the Blazers’ comeback attempt.
Aaron was fantastic with 20 points on 8-of-20 shots, but it was the way he made those shots that was impressive. It just wasn’t off 3-pointers (2-of-5). He attacked the basket more than Rafer Alston did, blew by defenders, and scored on at least 4 layups Tuesday night because of that aggressiveness.
He also had some sweet dribble moves to get into the lane, then would elevate and pop a jumper over defenders who were backing up because they thought he was taking it to the rack. It’s a sweet move, and almost impossible to defend.
Yao had a so-so game. He ‘only’ scored 15 points on 6-of-15 shots. He missed his first 4 shots, which included 2 back-to-back dunk/layup attempts within a few seconds of each other in the first quarter. The first dunk attempt was a one-handed jam attempt over Joel Pryzbilla, who appeared to get a hand between the ball and the rim.
But Yao’s second miss was a flat-out blown layup from underneath the rim, and Yao had to slap his hands frustration that he had missed such an easy shot.
Yao’s night was even more frustrating because referee Scott Foster fell for two Pryzbilla flops by calling them as offensive fouls on Yao. They were absolutely ridiculous calls.
Pryzbilla flopped on Yao 4 times in the game, getting caught only once.
Click here for more photos from pre-game and the game itself.
But fortunately Foster would finally expose Przybilla for what he was when Pryz went to the well too often in the fourth quarter with 2 flops on Yao within a few seconds. The second flop is when Foster called him for a defensive foul, giving a little bit of payback for Yao.
The first half for Houston was incredible as they scored 60 points, and in the second quarter the reserves came in – like Von Wafer, Chuck Hayes, Kyle Lowry – who actually widened the lead after Yao went out, going on a 34-17 run without him. During that scoring outburst, I loved how the bench (including Yao) was on their feet cheering them on and pumping their fists!
The second unit’s offense was a juggernaut as it amped up the running game, like when Lowry started a break and dropped it off to Wafer for a sweet layup. Wafer would score 9 points on 4-of-8 shooting, and heated up fast like a microwave. I said it the other day when I made claim on the new nickname I’ve given him: Vonnie “The Microwave” Wafer. Man, it’s going to be fun watching Wafer, Lowry and Aaron the rest of this season tiring out the defense as they burn rubber on the court.
With this big win, as shaky as it looked in the game’s last few minutes, the Rockets moved slightly ahead of Portland for 4th place in the West. But there’s still lots of games ahead for everyone, including the big national TV game against Cleveland on Thursday night, and a schedule that gets much tougher in March.
Houston may not win Thursday because the Cavaliers are so good, but at least the Rockets showed maturity to hold on for a win Tuesday when things were looking grim. Houston has now won 5 games in a row, 2 against pretty decent teams (Dallas, Portland) and 8 games in a row at home. This is starting to feel a little bit like how last year’s win streak started.