The Rockets needed to win in Phoenix Wednesday night to prove they could take the division lead away from the Spurs, not just by hoping San Antonio would continue losing games against teams they should beat, like Oklahoma City Tuesday night.
Yao Ming was calm and measured shooting over Shaq Wednesday night.
Click here for more photos from the game.
If the Rockets were going to get the 2nd or 3rd seed in the West — which would be a golden opportunity to get more favorable match-ups (no Jazz) — they would have to show they have the mental strength to beat a 9th-seeded team when the chips are down, especially after the Rockets just went 3 days where they didn’t have to play, and had only played one game 1 game in 7 days. After all, they don’t have much more time to get it going before the playoffs start on April 18th.
I’ll cut to the chase: they failed the test. Not as badly as they did in Utah last week, but a loss is still a loss.
I’m pissed that they came out with no intensity. The Suns looked like they were going to run away with it when they hit 9 of their first 10 shots, shot 80% in the first quarter, 61% in the first half, outrebounded the Rockets 26-11, outscored them 32-16 in the paint, and led 67-56 at halftime.
To their credit, the Rockets finally got serious, made a run in the third quarter thanks in part to Yao scoring 6 straight points, and entered the 4th quarter tied at 88-88. At that time, I thought the Rockets were going to need to build a big lead in the 4th to just hold on for dear life, because we knew it was going to be a crazy 4th quarter with Nash and Shaq fighting for their playoff hopes.
Well, the Rockets did that according to plan, opening up an 86-79 lead. That’s when you step on your opponent’s throat and put them away, right?
Instead, they fell apart, missing 9 shots in a row and turning the ball over 3 times while letting the Suns go on a 15-0 run to take a 7-point lead with 4:17 remaining. The damage had been done, much to my worries. The Rockets made a mini-run to try to get back into it, but they were going to have to rely on a colossal breakdown by the Suns to win it. That’s not going to happen with Steve Nash at the helm. Rockets lose 114-109.
This loss hurts not only because the Rockets had the Suns on the ropes, but because it brings up the concern again that they can’t win big games against decent teams on the road in a statement game like this one where they could grab the playoff position they want by the neck. Remember the Utah Jazz game in Salt Lake they couldn’t win last week?
The Rockets got away from the things during that dry spell in the 4th quarter that they had done so well in the 3rd. Just like ESPN’s Jon Barry said in the fourth: you just don’t know what their offense is going to do, and too often they get away from Yao.
Except for a few series, like when Yao let Steve Nash drive right past him under the bucket for a layup without even contesting the shot, and getting blocked twice in a row (at the beginning of the fourth quarter), I liked how Yao didn’t try too hard to make things happen that he’s not capable of doing, like dribbling too much before a shot. Instead, he just shot jump hooks over Shaq and turnaround jumpers. It worked to a degree: Yao would finish with 20 points on 9-of-18 shots and 14 boards.
But there was one big error that Yao made late in the game that was costly. With the Rockets down 111-105 with 1:32 remaining, Yao grabbed a defensive rebound and the Rockets really needed a score in a bad way. Good. But he wasn’t careful enough to watch where he threw his outlet pass. He intended to throw it to Aaron Brooks who was further up the court, but Yao telegraphed the path such that it was an easy steal for Nash, and that was the ball game right there. You just can’t make silly mistakes like that at that juncture of the game.
I’ve been a big supporter of Aaron Brooks in the past because his points are very much needed by the Rockets. Although he only scored 9 points Wednesday night, he did have 5 assists. But I was pretty upset in the 3rd quarter when he had a terrible series of 3 plays in a row when he got stripped by Shaq (or tried to throw a behind-the-back bounce pass, I couldn’t tell), then took an ill-advised 3-pointer when he should have dumped it into Yao, then threw a bad bounce pass into Yao in the post that Shaq knocked away for a steal.
This series shows Aaron still has some maturing to do. But like I’ve mentioned before: don’t blame Brooks for being a young player. It was the Rockets front office who rolled the dice by trading away Rafer Alston and promoting Brooks to be the starter. I have full confidence that the move will turn out to be the right one over the next few years, but the question is will it pay off in time for this year’s playoffs? Time will tell.
It may be more acceptable to lose a game like this one EARLY in the season when you have dozens of games to make up for it, but now it’s time to get serious and show you can put teams away. THIS game was as close as to a playoff game as you can get, and if you can’t put the 9th-seeded team away only 8 games away from the playoffs, and that team misses 15 free throws, including 3 from Nash (who had only missed 10 all year!) then chances are you’re not going to be able to do it consistently a couple of weeks from now when the playoffs start.
Rick Adelman said it best after the game: ““We did everything we talked about not doing. We allowed them to run the court, if they missed they got the offensive boards back, they had 30-something points in the paint. It was all the stuff we talked about that you can’t allow them to do.”
Get prepared, Houston. Based on what I saw Wednesday, this could be another “one and done” playoff season for the Rockets. If that happens, look for some major changes to be made in the off-season for the Rockets get mentally tougher.
On the bright side, Shane Battier‘s point production has been coming around lately. He scored 18 points thanks to 4-of-7 shooting from 3-point land. Von Wafer had an outstanding game with 17 points on 8-of-10 shots, taking it strong to the hole on numerous occasions. But it wasn’t enough to overcome an extreme rarity these days: Luis Scola only hit 2-of-5 shots for 4 points.