Not much could have been as devastating as the loss the Rockets had against Dallas Wednesday that dropped Houston from maybe getting the 2nd seed all the way down to the 5th seed and losing home court advantage. All the fans were down on them, I was down on them, and Portland had tons of momentum heading into the playoffs after beating their last 6 opponents at home by an average of 22 points per game.
But give the Rockets all the credit in the world for believing in themselves, coming out with a vengeance, being resilient like they have shown all season long, and thrashing Portland 108-81 to take a 1-0 lead in the series. Just like that, the Rockets have gained home court advantage.
This game tells us the Rockets have the talent and athleticism to win this series, and that it all comes down to their mental approach to the game, starting with Yao. He delivered Saturday night.
Yao came out focused and determined from the beginning of the game like he was trying to throw the monkey not only off HIS back for not ever winning a first round playoff series, but also McGrady’s, Steve Francis’ and every other teammate he’s had since 2002.
The power of Yao: Joel Pryzbilla had a hard time stopping Yao on Saturday night. It was perfection for #11: 9-of-9 from the field for 24 points as the Rockets rolled. Click here for more game photos.
Yao would score 9 of the Rockets’ first 11 points, 14 of their first 18, and had 24 by halftime on 9-of-9 shooting. He was unstoppable with his signature shots: the turnaround jumper and jump hook. I can’t remember a game in Yao’s career where he was so dominant from the get-go.
Give him credit for shouldering the load and taking the number of shots you’d expect your franchise player to take if he’s open. Even a terrible blocking call by the refs on Yao while he was stationary and standing OUTSIDE the semicircle when Rudy Fernandez barreled into him couldn’t stop him.
At halftime I thought there was no way he could keep up the pace he had set. Yao rarely plays two phenomenal halves together in one game. He’ll either get defended more aggressively, get tired, lose concentration, or a combination of all three.
One reason for his success in the first half is because he was played 1-on-1 by Joel Pryzbilla, not fronted. Portland probably did that so they could surprise him with a fronting defense in the 2nd half, like Dallas did the other day, so that he and the coaches wouldn’t have as much time to make the necessary adjustments.
But after Yao picked up his 4th foul 5 ½ minutes into the 3rd quarter, it really didn’t matter because the Rockets had such a commanding 74-53 lead, there was no way even the Rockets could blow a lead that big.
So that was it for Yao: Rick Adelman opted to rest him the remainder of the game, finishing with the same points (24) made on 9-of-9 shooting, 6-for-6 from the line, and 9 rebounds. He also was focused defensively, blocking 2 shots in his 24 minutes of play.
Dikembe Mutombo picked up most of his minutes the rest of the way, logging 18 for the game, probably the most time he’s spent on the court in one game in months, if not a year. Perhaps Adelman had been saving him all season for the playoffs. I loved Deke’s block of Brandon Roy at the rim with 1:17 remaining in the 3rd quarter. The Rockets need more of that.
The other player who really stepped up who everyone has been doubting lately as Houston’s answer at point guard was Aaron Brooks. Without him complimenting Yao in the scoring column (27 points), this game might have had a different outcome.
A.B. had the game of his life in front of fans from his Oregonian days: aggressive all night long, attacking the basket knowing the Blazer guards can’t keep up with him, and Adelman deciding to spread the floor to give him, and other Rockets, bigger lanes to the hoop.
Brooks scored 13 points in the first half on 5-of-8 shooting, hitting cold-blooded shots like we hadn’t seen from him in quite some time — all of which we had wish he had done on a more consistent basis this season.
The play that best typified Brooks’ speed and talent occurred at the end of the first half. With 4.4 seconds remaining on the clock, he took the ball from the opposite end of the court, weaved through defenders, and scored a runner off the glass at the buzzer to make it 62-44! That play got he and the entire bench fired up as they headed to the locker room for halftime.
In the past, only OTHER teams’ point guards seemed to be able to do that, but now Houston’s can.
Brooks’ 27 points came on an efficient 10-of-17 shooting, including 5-of-8 swishers from 3-point land. He’s young still, and he’ll continue to have ups-and-downs, but time will tell if he’s just a little better than Luther Head, or he’s on his way to Tony Parker-like status.
The other player who stepped up his game just like Brooks was Ron Artest, who was much smarter with his shot selection. In fact, he had the exact same stats as Brooks at halftime: 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting, and 4 assists.
Because of that 18-point halftime lead and balanced scoring coming from other players, they wouldn’t need many points from Artest. He’d finish with 17 on 7-of-12 shots. That’s all we ask, Ron, just smart selection and you always awesome defense, and we’ll be happy and you’ll be rewarded with a very nice contract in the off-season.
The other main difference-maker compared to Wednesday night’s loss in Dallas was Luis Scola bouncing back from a terrible game. Scoring only 5 points against the Mavericks in probably his worst game of the year, Scola only had 4 points by halftime Saturday, but poured in 15 in the second half as Houston built up a lead as big as 30. He finished making 7-of-9 shots for 19 points, mainly coming from jumpers as the Blazers tried to contain other players that left him open. Ball movement was paramount, and the Rockets delivered with 16 assists, led by a game-high 7 from Brooks. When’s the last time that happened?
That kind of shooting and passing coupled with Yao’s, Artest’s, and Brooks’ efficiency helped the Rockets shoot an amazing 66% from the field by halftime, and 58.5% for the game.
It offset a bad shooting night from the field for Shane Battier (1-for-5), but I give Battier a ton of credit for being much more aggressive on offense, attacking the basket and getting fouled a couple of times at the beginning of the second half. I couldn’t believe how assertive he was taking it to the rack! He needs to keep doing that because it completely surprised the Blazers’ defense, and it gives them one more thing to worry about. Battier would make all 5 of his free throws to finish with 7 points.
Von Wafer had a similar game to Shane. He was 1-for-6 from the field, but he was fouled a couple of times and made all 4 of his free throws to finish with 6. That kind of free throw shooting from the team overall gave them a healthy 24-of-28 from the line. They also out-rebounded Portland 44-20, and out-assisted them 16-12. Throw in 6 blocks and 5 steals on defense that held Portland to 42% shooting, and the Rockets did just about everything right.
Looking ahead to Tuesday night, the Rockets need to come out in Game 2 and not be content that a Game 1 win got them home court advantage. They have to put the hammer down once again and put even more doubt into the Blazers’ young minds.
Although I predicted the Rockets to lose the series, I hope I’m wrong. One thing I wrote after their loss to Dallas did seem to play out, though:
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.
So although I may end up ultimately looking bad with my series prediction, and gladly so, at least I got something about this series right.