The Rockets may have disappointed many fans earlier in the week by showing they aren’t very strong in fourth quarters, on the road, against playoff teams. It was a sad reality check that doesn’t bode well for a long run in this year’s playoffs.
But Sunday night the Rockets picked up their fans a bit with an encouraging win against potential playoff foe Portland, a very dangerous team. It got tight at times, but they came through when they needed with a 102-88 win, and have almost assured they will have home court advantage if they face them in the first round.
Yao Ming had a solid game against the Portland big men, scoring 21 points and grabbing 12 boards. Click here for more photos.
That’s because the Rockets are now ½ game ahead of the Blazers with 5 games left to play, and now hold the tiebreaker. And with the Spurs’ loss to Cleveland on Sunday, the Rockets are only ½ behind the Spurs for the 3rd seed.
But watch out: the Jazz beat the Hornets on Sunday, gaining 1 full game on New Orleans, and the Jazz are now only ½ game behind the Hornets for 6th place (#3 vs #6 will play each other in the first round). So a Rockets-Jazz first round playoff series could still happen.
The Blazers game was obviously huge because I heard during the Rockets’ radio broadcast that Daryl Morey’s staff had calculated the probability of the Rockets having home-court advantage for ANY playoff serious would have dropped to 11% if they had lost this game, whereas by winning it, the probability increased dramatically to 65%.
There were times during the game when I thought, “Here we go again,” like when the Blazers made a run to pull within striking distance. But to their credit, in the fourth quarter players like Luis Scola and Von Wafer stepped up to hit some big buckets to put the game away.
Perhaps no score was more dramatic than the one with 8:25 remaining in the game. With the Rockets only up by 8 points, Wafer drove the baseline and threw down a FEROCIOUS ONE-HANDED REVERSE JAM!!! WHICH GOT THE WHOLE BUILDING ROARING AND ON THEIR FEET! I’m sure someone will put it on YouTube, and if anyone finds it, post a comment at the end of this post and I’ll make sure to highlight it.
That dunk had to be the most athletic dunk I’ve seen by a Rocket since Clyde Drexler was in a Rockets uniform, and is sure to be seen on Sportscenter’s Top 10.
I believe one of the keys to the game occurred as early in the second quarter when the Rockets had a 46-39 lead, their offense with Hayes, Scola, Battier, Artest and Lowry was bogging down, and were definitely in need of something solid on offense.
That’s when they played smart and got the ball to Scola in the low post, and Scola delivered on 2 straight possessions with scores in the block (both over Lamarcus Aldridge), putting them up 50-39 to get some breathing room and put them back on the right track.
That is, until the 3rd quarter when, after the Rockets built a 14-point lead, gave it up again and the Blazers kept hanging around down by 7 most of the quarter. That’s when Yao put a little hook shot in the lane, missed, BUT GRABBED THE OFFENSIVE REBOUND, PUMP FAKED ON GREG ODEN, AND THREW IT DOWN OVER HIM! THAT GOT THE BENCH AND CROWD OFF THEIR FEET AGAIN!
That play extended the lead to 69-60, but it was one of the few bright points in a quarter where the Rockets shot only 24%, but were fortunate to lead 72-64 at the end of 3 quarters.
Against Portland, that’s not a safe lead considering the Blazers had come back to win 10 games this season when trailing after 3 quarters.
That’s when Wafer hit a huge bucket over Oden in the lane, putting the Rockets up 76-70. Ron Artest would follow-up with a jumper to push it to 78-70, and that’s when Wafer threw down his jaw-dropping reverse jam to give the Rockets a 10-point lead.
Wafer would hit another jumper a couple of minutes later to push it to 86-76, giving him 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting at that time. I’m still loving the Wafer story. Once the playoffs start, he could really show the rest of the league how much of a stud he is.
Sandwiching a huge Shane Battier three-pointer was Scola, who kept the points flowing by hitting two long jumpers, then another about a minute later to put the game away 95-82 with 1:55 remaining.
Scola’s 16 points on 8-of-10 shots Sunday night was what they needed from him when the Rockets lost against the Suns, but it’s so rare for him to have a bad game, it’s really unfair to complain. I still think Scola is one of the most underrated players in the league.
But Yao was the biggest difference, scoring 21 points on 6-of-10 shooting, and hitting 9-of-11 from the line. His 12 rebounds were encouraging in that 6 of them were offensive boards, a very high ratio for him, especially considering the Blazers’ front line is tall with Joel Pryzbilla, Aldrdige, and Oden.
He won the battle against Oden, who played only 11 minutes and scored 4 points as Pryzbillla’s backup.
Yao also had 3 assists, two of them spectacular, one coming late in the first quarter from a beautiful give-and-go bounce pass to a cutting Chuck Hayes for a layup. Then early in the second quarter, Yao whipped a pass to a cutting Kyle Lowry for another layup! If Yao continues to be a threat in the passing lanes, watch out.
It was a complete and balanced game, with 5 Rockets scoring in double figures (Yao, Scola, Artest, Wafer, and Aaron Brooks). Brooks had 14 points on 5-of-12 shots, and showed why the Rockets had such faith in him to give him the starting PG job.
Two other players finished close to double figures with 9 points: Battier (3-of-11, with all 3 shots made being 3-pointers), and Chuck Hayes (of all people), hitting 4-of-7 shots and grabbing 10 boards. Hayes was also able to hold Aldridge in check, who ‘only’ scored 22 points on 7-of-15 shots, not bad considering he scored 35 points against Oklahoma City.
Ultimately, there were 4 team stats that was the difference: 51.4% shooting vs. 45.2%, free throw shooting of 81.5% vs 66.7% for Portland (16-of-24), 42 rebounds compared to 34, and only 8 turnovers compared to 11 for the Blazers