Perhaps no other game on such a big stage demonstrated that Daryl Morey and Rick Adelman’s nirvana has finally arrived.
Remember all that “Big 3” stuff? Forget about that for now. That may be a good description of the top 3 U.S. automakers (hell, it doesn’t even count for them since the economy tanked), and it’s not the methodology that’s required of Houston teams to win big playoff games.
In my opinion, the better mantra is great defense, and having balanced scoring and talent throughout the roster. With it you can still beat a good team, even if your two superstars in Yao Ming and Ron Artest score 7 points (2-of-7 from the field) and 9 (3-of-8), respectively.
Luis Scola delivered on a night when the Blazers’ defense on Yao gave his teammates lots of opportunities to score. Click here for more photos from the game.
No one would ever have thought it possible, but that’s what you now have in Houston, folks. I don’t know about you, but I’m perfectly fine with a few games where Yao scores very few points if the Rockets can win. Who can complain? It’s when they lose that everyone goes bonkers that Yao isn’t getting enough touches, or he’s not being aggressive enough.
But people must realize that Yao Ming isn’t being ignored or disrespected by his teammates if he doesn’t get the ball enough to get his points. What’s happening is that the Rockets are so talented that when Yao can’t fight for position to get open, or his teammates can’t get him the ball during that nanosecond when he may be open as the Blazers drape themselves all over him, the Rockets can still make the defense pay.
Yao not getting his points is only temporary. As is always the case, Yao will get his points once the Blazers start respecting the other threats on the roster, like Luis Scola’s amazing 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting, or Carl Landry (10 points on 5-of-7), or Shane Battier with an offensive explosion of 16 points and clutch shots (more on that later).
Besides, it’s not unusual for very good players to have scoring lulls and explode once they’ve made adjustments after seeing how their defense plays them. Just look at Brandon Roy. He scored 21 points in Game 1, destroyed the Rockets with 42 in Game 2, and in Game 3 Friday night, gets contained with 19 on Friday night on 6-of-18 shooting, and he had to work very hard to get those points.
I predict the same will happen with Yao. After scoring 24 points in Game 1 on 9-of-9 shooting, he’s like a Navy seamen who has been out-to-sea for a little too long, waiting for his opportunity to get to shore. When he “arrives,” I predict he’ll explode with another 20+ game in this series doing the things he’s accustomed to doing.
He will make adjustments as the defense gives he and his teammates the chance to do that. I think one way that Yao and Adelman have to do that is for Yao to come outside the paint more and take open jumpers. I say if the other Rockets are having a bad shooting night to burn the defense, then forget the mantra of forcing Yao to play in the low post. Let him play outside like Adelman’s former centers in Sacramento Vlade Divac and Brad Miller, and let him shoot more from the outside.
I actually saw Friday night Yao positioned more to do that. Other players would be working their way in the paint, and he’d have his hands up ready to receive a pass and shoot a face-up jumper. I say let him do that more so he doesn’t have to work so hard in the low post.
I can tell one of the reasons why Yao isn’t getting open down low is that he’s not doing something that Hakeem was so good at doing. As defenders like Joel Pryzbilla and Greg Oden have their arm extended across Yao’s body to try to keep the entry pass coming in cleanly, Yao should be coming TOWARD the ball more to break free from the defender. That means setting up lower in the post, coming out a couple of feet as the ball gets delivered to him, then going to work. It would still require a very accurate pass because chances are the player throwing the ball into him will have a defender who will try to collapse on Yao and deflect the ball. But it can be done if done with precision.
Even though Yao didn’t score that many points Friday night, I thought he did an outstanding job on the boards, grabbing many key rebounds that I don’t think he normally would have pulled down if he had been focusing on scoring so much. Grabbing 13 boards against a pretty good Portland frontcourt can’t be underestimated, especially that big tap-back offensive rebound with 2:12 remaining in the game that kept the possession alive while the Rockets were trying to run out the clock.
And defensively, he did an outstanding job clogging up the lane making it more difficult for Roy to get to the rack, including a sweet block of Roy at the 4:36 mark of the second quarter that showed Yao’s help defense has improved significantly this year. He did get into a little bit of foul trouble picking up some ticky-tack fouls, and he’ll have to cut down on that so he can spend more time on the court the rest of this series.
Artest passes the test
I am absolutely floored and thrilled with the restraint that Artest showed in this game. He didn’t take a shot in the first half, and instead focused on doing the little things to help his team, like focus on defending Roy, who scored only 8 points on 2-of-7 shooting in the first half.
Artest’s decision to not jack-up bad shots was such a key to this win. He got a little trigger-happy after taking his first shot midway through the 3rd quarter, and would only make 3-of-8 shots overall, but I can live with 5 missed shots per game instead of 12 like in Game 2. Two of the 3 shots he made, of course, were down low when he took it aggressively to the basket. He only took one 3-pointer, and made that. If Artest continues to do that, and focus mainly on defense, the Rockets will be in extremely good shape to win this series.
Luis and Landry
I can’t tell you how much I loved seeing Luis Scola taking jumper and jumper as the Blazers’ defense left him wide open as they focused on covering Yao. And Luis made them pay with 13 points in the first half on 6-of-12 shooting. It’s one of the few times where I’m okay with a player taking so many shots from the same position (10 shots in the first quarter alone!), because Luis has proved he can hit them. And did you see that sweet shot he hit over Pryzbilla down low, and draw the foul? The guy’s moves down low in the paint continue to amaze me.
As long as Luis can stay out of foul trouble (he got into some Friday night that limited his second-half minutes), it’s going to be tough for the Blazers to cover him AND Yao.
I forgot to mention in a post before Game 3 that I thought Carl Landry could be a difference-maker in this series because he’s athletic enough to give the Blazers fits. He’d been kind of quiet all series long, but now with Dikembe Mutombo’s career over, I predicted Landry was not only going to have to play good defense, but he was going to have to start off-setting what Deke brought on the defensive end with some offense to make them pay. And boy did he deliver. He hit 5-of-5 shots in the second quarter alone and finished with 10 points, giving the Blazers yet another threat to think about having to cover.
Shane Battier is finally starting to understand that he has to be aggressive offensively if the Rockets are going to win this series. Three points a game on 3 shots like in Game 2 isn’t going to cut it. It looks like he finally realized that after scoring 16 points on 6-of-10 shots Friday night.
Shane has hit a few big shots in his career to win games, but no shot has probably been bigger than the 27-foot 3-pointer he swished with 4:33 remaining in the game to give the Rockets a 76-69 cushion they so desperately needed as the Blazers were making their run.
At that time in the game, the Rockets were struggling, and rather than run away and hide, Battier seemed to be thinking, “Screw this – I’m going to take over on this possession.”
Attribute that big bucket to hard work in the gym and getting comfortable taking what’s typically a low-percentage shot, and to do it after moving to that position above the 3-point line, stopping on a dime, and draining it. Hopefully that shot will give him the confidence to be more aggressive offensively and not go hiding again. If the Blazers have to think about Battier being an offensive threat in addition to Scola and Landry, it’s just about over.
I loved Battier’s reaction after he hit that trey – it still gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. Always the picture of composure, he never really gets emotional like that. That’s what I love about the playoffs – it brings out all the emotions in even the most composed.
Brooks & Lowry
Although Aaron Brooks didn’t have a big explosive game (only 3-of-11 for 11 points) like he had in Games 1 & 2 where he averaged 25 points, I was thrilled with what he continues to bring to the table: the Rockets’ best threat to get into the lane and create havoc with the Blazers defensively.
Time after time Brooks would exploit his advantage over Steve Blake, blow past him into the lane, then dish out to an open shooter or take it to the rack himself for a score. I really believe without that dimension, the Rockets would have become very predictable for the Blazers to defend in this game and they would have lost it.
And A.B. did his job as a point guard by hitting clutch free throws down the stretch as the Blazers were fouling him intentionally to try to stay within striking distance. Sure, he missed a couple of those free throws, but on the second one he missed with just a couple of seconds remaining in the game, he had the presence of mind use his quickness to go grab the rebound and close out the victory.
It really looks like Brooks is coming into his own and bringing more to the table than what Rafer Alston did. Brooks had 5 assists Friday night, too, so give him credit he’s not a one-dimensional player.
And his backup Kyle Lowry continues to impress, being aggressive himself pushing the ball on the fast break and forcing the defense to react. Lowry would finish with 8 points on 2-of-2 shooting from the field, and 4-of-6 from the line.
It was really the scoring of Lowry and his bench teammates like Von Wafer and Landry in the first half that were huge keys to the win. In that first half, that trio led the charge with 12-of-15 shooting (80%) and 19 points!
Probably the weakest link on the floor in the second half was Wafer. He took it strong to the hole a couple of times for amazing dunks, one on a fast break after a steal, and another on a Lowry-led break where he threw one down that brought the house down and made me have to rewind my DVR 5 times to soak it all in!
But outside of those 2 dunks, he made only 1-of-7 shots, becoming a ball-stopper and Artest/McGrady-like jacking up too many jumpers. Stick to your game, Von: take it to the rack and save the jumpers for less important games in the regular season.
After being torched by Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge in Game 2, the intensity the Rockets had defensively to start the game was a joy to watch as they clamped down and held the Blazers to 37% shooting in the first quarter, and 42% overall. They out-rebounded them 42-31 and blocked 7 of their shots, with 4 coming from Battier! Another reason why I love the intensity of the playoffs!
Even with the great D, though, the Blazers showed why they are one of the best comeback teams in the league by hitting lots of 3-pointers down the stretch to make it very close. Rudy Fernandez and Blake were 5-of-7 and 4-of-7 from 3-point land alone, something they hadn’t done at all in Games 1 & 2. But I’m not as mad about how they came back like that. Hitting 3-pointers consistently in a series is tough to do, and if they do it again starting out in Game 4, I have faith the Rockets’ defense will adapt.