There were so many storylines in the Rockets-Magic showdown Tuesday night. In case you weren’t keeping track, let me recap some of them for you.
– The return of Rafer Alston to Houston, and matching up against his former understudy Aaron Brooks and the guy he was traded for – Kyle Lowry.
– Yao vs. Dwight Howard (the self-anointed Superman during NBA Slam Dunk competitions), arguably the two best centers in the league.
– It was a big game for Orlando since they’re in a neck-and-neck competition for the second seed in the East with Boston.
– The Rockets are still in the hunt for home court in the first round of the playoffs.
– The return of Carl Landry to the court after recovering from a gunshot wound.
Yao Ming won another matchup game against Dwight Howard. In this photo, Yao is about to block his shot in the first quarter. Click here for pre-game photos of Rafer hugging ex-teammates, and more photos from the game.
You have to give credit to the Rockets for winning a 93-83 game against a very good Orlando team, their second big win in a row after beating Portland Sunday night. The Magic have won 57 games this season, which in the tougher Western Conference is probably equivalent to wins in the high 40s like the Rockets. But they still have so many dangerous shooters, and Howard is still Howard.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect since I’m still a little bitter the Rockets played poorly down the stretch in Phoenix and LA last week. It’s hard to get over those losses and think the Rockets have addressed their flaws, even after that encouraging win over Portland.
This time the Rockets came out strong, just about held the lead the entire game, had a few moments where it got close, like 55-54 in the 3rd quarter. But they would turn it on after that by closing out the quarter on a 12-5 run, and hold the Magic off with another solid 4th quarter, their second good 4th quarter in a row against decent competition.
Maybe they’re finally righting the ship after so many implosions most of this year in the 4th.
The Rockets’ offense was good, but their defense was even better, holding the Magic 19 points below their scoring average of 102 and to 38% shooting.
On offense, the Rockets had only 6 turnovers, the second game in a row where they’ve taken care of the ball fairly well after only turning it over 8 times against Portland.
Yao would win the battle against Dwight Howard for the 7th time out of their 9 matchups, scoring 20 points on 8-of-13 FG attempts, grabbing 16 boards, blocking 2 shots, and having NO turnovers. Howard scored 13 points (5-of-11 field goals) grabbed 10 rebounds, had 3 blocks, and 3 turnovers. His making only 3-of-9 free throws didn’t compare to Yao’s 4-of-5 from the line.
Tuesday night I came across an interesting analysis on this Orlando Magic fan site of why Howard doesn’t play so well against Yao compared to other NBA centers. It’s pretty good, and hopefully it will be more relevant to all of us in a couple of months if the Rockets and Magic are lucky enough to face each other in June.
Yao started off the game strong over Howard with a hook shot him along the baseline, then a couple of minutes later he hit a turnaround jumper over him, and about 3 ½ minutes later scored on another jump hook. Then about 1 ½ minutes later, he would block Howard on a spin move in the paint, which had to surprise him. Yao set the tone early he was ready for the competition. I like it when Yao raises his game to meet the challenge from a dominant big man, like he does for Shaq.
One of my favorite Yao plays occurred with just under 2 minutes remaining in the first half when he banged Howard hard for position underneath the offensive glass, snagged the rebound, then pivoted around Howard for a left-handed layup off the glass! Howard was trying to keep from picking up his 3rd foul, so he didn’t really contest the shot, but it was good to see Yao banging hard in the paint for the board. Four of Yao’s 16 rebounds were on the offensive end, a little better ratio than we’ve seen from him this season. The Rockets will need more of that from him.
Another favorite play of mine from Yao happened with 3:29 remaining in the game when he dribbled a couple of times way out high, then pulled up and hit a jumper as the shot clock was winding down to make it 84-74 Rockets. That’s a rare move for Yao since normally when he shoots a face-up jumper far away from the basket, he doesn’t dribble at all before launching the shot. This time he did, and it was fun to watch him stop-and-pop.
Rafer played pretty much like he did before and after the trade. He scored 15 points on 4-of-11 shots, with 3 of them being 3-pointers. He had 6 boards, 3 assists, but also 3 turnovers.
He took it to the hole a couple of times unwisely, like once against Yao, missing badly off the glass both times. It was weird to see him take it strong against his former teammates, including Dikembe Mutombo who is the best shot blocker on the team. Deke blocked his shot, but Rafer drew contact for the foul call. You would have thought Rafer had learned a thing or two playing against his own teammates during the time he was in Houston. But maybe that’s one of the reasons why he was traded.
It was a little strange to see him in the first quarter strip the ball away from Yao down in the paint. It was a good play on his part, but my brain was telling me, “Why is Rafer stealing it away from his own teammate?” until I saw him pushing the ball up the court the other way in a blue uniform.
On the flipside, Aaron Brooks would score 11 points on 3-of-8 shooting. Kind of Rafer-esque numbers. But A.B. did have one memorable sweet play against his former mentor in the third quarter when he blew by him, took it strong to the hole, went up for a layup, and was bumped by Howard in mid-air but still scored!
Brooks’ backup Kyle Lowry scored 7 points on 2-of-7 shots. Not all that great, but was just enough.
Probably the best point guard on the floor Tuesday night statistically was Magic reserve, and former Rocket, Tyronn Lue, who scored 9 points on 4-of-7 shots in just 16 minutes, keeping the Magic within striking distance most of the fourth quarter before the Rockets prevailed.
Everyone in Toyota Center was completely stoked that Carl Landry was able to not only play, but pick up where he left off before he was shot in the left calf. Landry swished his first field goal, a jumper from the top of the key, and would hit 3 more shots to finish with 8 points in 20 minutes of action.
You can’t just help but think how recent road games against Utah, Phoenix, and LA could have turned out with Carl on the court. Oh well. Bygones. Welcome back, Carl. Now let’s go dominate.
Another pleasant surprise was the continued spark that Vonnie “The Microwave” Wafer provided off the bench. In the second quarter, Wafer broke through a screen and swished a floater in the lane, then on the next possession he came around a Yao screen to swish another one from the key.
Wafer would finish with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting, and abused J.J. Redick who couldn’t keep up with him. Where would the Rockets be without Von’s athleticism on display and those beautiful high-arching jump shots that swish the nets? They wouldn’t be as exciting to watch, that’s for sure.
What really surprised me looking at the boxscore was Ron Artest hitting only 6-of-21 shots to score 16 points. I can’t recall Artest taking that many shots, but I do remember many of the ones he made because they always seem to be spectacular, or they come at important moments in the game where they need a bucket.
Artest did more damage to the Magic by impersonating Magic Johnson on a variety of nice dimes (7), like:
– in the first quarter, backing down Hedo Turkoglu in the paint to draw the attention of Howard on a pump fake, then dishing it to Yao for a throw-down!
– from way out high with about 6:40 remaining in the game, bouncing a pass to Landry for a dunk, then from about the same position a little over a minute later, zinging a pass to Wafer on a backcut for a layup! Beautiful, crisp passing is so much more fun to watch than seeing Ron hoist ill-advised jumpers or other low-percentage shots.
If he could only do more passing like this, posting up, and taking it to the hole, don’t you think the Rockets would just about be unstoppable? Maybe now with Landry and Wafer being such an integral part of the offensive attack, Artest won’t take it upon himself to try to score so much and let their young guns, including Luis Scola (12 points on 5-of-9 shots), help carry the load more.