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Rockets drop to 5th seed after loss to Dallas and lose home court

April 16th, 2009
by John

If you’ve been following the Rockets for a few years, you never get used to the disappointment and underachievement. Chalk up another gag job in the annals of Rocket lore Wednesday night in Dallas.

Yao is fronted by Brandon Bass during a 95-84 loss to Dallas. Yao scored 23 points and grabbed 9 boards, but only took 5 shots in the second half and didn’t score in the fourth quarter, mainly because of the Rockets’ inability to take advantage of Dallas’ fronting defense. Sound familiar? Click here for more photos from the game.

The Rockets were sitting pretty headed into the final game of the regular season against the Mavericks where they could get as high as the #2 seed, but probably the 3rd seed, or at worst, the 4th seed. Falling anything further than the 4th seed, losing home court, and having to play the Lakers if somehow the Rockets won their first round series….well, that scenario was virtually unfathomable and would be considered an utter failure if it played out that way. The Rockets were too high in the standings for the past few weeks for too long to think they could drop that far in just one night.

Leave it to the Rockets to leave your head shaking once again. I could go into lots of details about what happened in this particular game, but there are plenty of places you can go to find that out. I’m frankly tired of writing about the same old things when they lose a big game like this.

Maybe I’ll go into more detail over the next couple of days when I watch the video of the game again, and do more of an analysis on Yao’s game, but not tonight.

This year’s path in the playoffs was supposed to be much more different than the past few seasons. A better seed, better match-ups. Instead, they don’t have home court now, and they have to play a dangerous and athletic Portland team.

So why does this keep happening to the Rockets, blowing double-digit leads and unable to win big games on the road against good teams when it really counts? Why didn’t they come out and play one of their best games, instead playing one of their worst over the past few weeks when the chips were down?

I think it’s because of one main thing: it’s really hard to find players who perform at their best when the pressure is on. The Rockets keep cycling through players to find the guys who can do that when the games are REALLY big, and they’re getting close, but they’re obviously not there yet. But you know Daryl Morey will keep trying.

Right now there’s got to be some second-guessing that the trading away of an experienced point guard like Rafer Alston, who ran the offense reasonably well, but wasn’t that great of a shooter, isn’t being made up with enough scoring output from Aaron Brooks, who scored only 7 points on 3-of-7 shooting in 19 minutes Wednesday night. The lack of offensive output from Brooks was made up somewhat by Kyle Lowry, who the Rockets got in return for Alston. Lowry scored 15 points, grabbed 7 boards, and had 5 assists in 30 minutes of play.

One question the Rockets’ coaching staff now face is the idea of giving more minutes to Lowry over Brooks, like they did Wednesday night, at the expense of affecting the confidence of Brooks.

Another question mark is Artest, who I really liked after McGrady went down (and even beforehand) and was shooting lights out. But his basketball IQ on offense is too low, which you can’t afford to have when games get tight. I’m getting really tired of his bad shot selection and the ballhoggish-ness.

The Rockets spent too much time waiting for McGrady to mature as a player, he never really did, and the Rockets wasted too much time waiting for it to happen. I have a feeling that will be the problem with Artest as well. He is what he is, and if he hasn’t gotten it by now, it’s time to move on, not sign him to a new contract after the season is over, and somehow find a star player who can score and play well under pressure. We’ll talk about that further in the off-season when the time is right.

I wonder if all that player data that Morey crunches can reveal players who play smart under pressure? After all, it’s not just Artest who loses his composure. As Shane Battier said after the game, “The big fella was rolling and we sort of got away from him, which is probably the dumbest thing we can do, especially when the big fella gets it rolling. We started to look elsewhere and started to take long, contested jumpers, which fed into their game plan of getting out and running. They had a couple of 3s and got back in the game. After that, it was tough to slow them down.”

Battier reverted back to his old conservative offensive ways somewhat (9 points on 2-of-5 shooting). The Rockets need much more production from their small forward, especially in this league. We’ve all seen Battier has the capability to score about double the number of points, but he’s almost too unselfish. Score, Shane, score!

Probably the biggest surprise Wednesday night was the disappearance of Mr. Consistency, Luis Scola, who had a rare off game with only 5 points on 2-of-8 shooting, and he was absolutely torched by Dirk Nowitzki (30 points, 15 rebounds).

Anytime 3 bench players (Lowry (15), Landry (8), and Wafer (7)) almost outscore the 4 starters around Yao (Artest (10), Brooks (7), Battier (9), and Scola (5)), you’re not going to win many games.

What’s most maddening is that the Rockets cannot do what they’ve been taught to combat fronting defenses against Yao, which was their downfall yet again Wednesday night. That’s not acceptable. Yao took on some of the blame post-game: “We had a ball-movement problem and I didn’t hold my post well. It’s my problem.”

That’s admirable Yao is taking the high road, but let’s face it, it’s everyone’s problem, not just Yao’s.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how the Rockets respond to this major disappointment of a loss. They have been resilient all year long, but they can’t help but get a little rattled when they were probably facing just an hour flight, at most, to play New Orleans or Dallas in the first round, but instead now have to take 5 hour flights to Portland, perhaps 3 trips over the next 7 games, and they have no home court advantage. That’s got to hurt the confidence of almost anyone.

There’s only one possible silver lining to them losing home court advantage, and it’s a stretch. The Rockets can’t stand prosperity, and seem to play better when they’re the underdog, which they surely will be when they go to Portland with that great crowd they have there. The Rockets could win one of the first 2 games in Portland because everyone is counting the Rockets out now after they failed so badly in Dallas. But that may be just what they need to steal a game in Portland and regain home court.

If the Rockets are lucky enough to beat the Blazers in the first round, they would then face the Lakers (their punishment for not beating Dallas Wednesday night), and the only chance they have of winning that series is if Kobe gets hurt before that series would begin.

If and when they lose that series, or even the Portland one, short of a miracle of synapses being forged in Artest’s brain, look for the Rockets to let Artest go and find a smart, scoring 2-guard who makes the right shot-making decisions when the pressure is on.