SUNDAY, 2/5/06 – For the first time in two months, the Rockets won their third straight game. This time they beat the struggling New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden in front of a national TV audience. It looked like the Rockets were going to run away with this game several times, but they couldn’t put the Knicks away until the final seconds with some David Wesley free throws, winning 93-89.
The Rockets played very well in the first half, with Yao scoring 8 of Houston’s first ten points, including a sweet fake that gave him a wide open lane to the bucket for a layup that ABC replayed over multiple times. He also had two blocks in that first quarter and dominated on both ends of the court, scoring 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the first half.
The Rockets led by as many as 9 points in the second quarter, and it looked like they were going to blow it wide open. They were playing extremely well, only turning the ball over four times in the first half and accumulating 15 assists. They also had a 14-0 advantage on the offensive boards, which was shocking considering the Knicks lead the league in offensive boards.
But the Knicks were able to stay in the game, trailing only 45-42. The lead could have been larger if T-Mac hadn’t struggled offensively. He was 1-of-8 from the field with only four points. But now with T-Mac and Yao back in the lineup all healthy, no big deal. When T-Mac is struggling, Yao will take over. When Yao is struggling, T-Mac will pick up the slack.
That’s exactly what happened in the second half. Yao went cold, missing all six of his shots, but T-Mac got hot in the third, scoring 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting.
With T-Mac’s help, the Rockets went on a huge spurt, opening up a 12-point lead. Their defense clamped down early in the third quarter, with Yao getting a block and the team picking up multiple steals.
Early in the third, Wesley scored after he stripped the ball from a Knick in the lane, took it down the other way and scored on a layup while getting fouled. After he hit the penalty free throw, the next time down the court, Wesley hit a three-pointer. He capped off scoring 8 points in a row by himself after scoring on a fast break layup on the very next possession.
But the Knicks made another run, erasing their 12-point deficit to tie it at 71-71 with 8:32 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Rockets countered with an 11-5 run over the next 3 minutes to take an 82-76 lead, and it looked like the Rockets were going to cruise to a victory. But the Knicks wouldn’t go away, and they only trailed 84-81 with less than two minutes to go.
With one minute remaining, T-Mac came up big with a drive to the basket, then dished off to Stromile Swift underneath the basket for a dunk to make it 86-81. Then T-Mac hit a huge two-pointer with 37 seconds remaining to make it 88-81.
But New York’s Jamal Crawford wouldn’t give up, scoring all of New York’s 8 points the rest of the way. The Rockets had to make lots of free throws down the stretch to close it out. It wouldn’t have been as tight if they had made all of them. Rafer Alston missed a free throw, and Wesley missed two, but he made four to finish with 19 points and clinch the victory, and that’s all that mattered.
More thoughts about Yao’s play recently
Despite Yao’s bad shooting in the second half, I got the feeling when watching him in the first half while he was dominating that he is much more confident after seeing how much his team needed him during his 21-game absence. Maybe he realizes as hard as he is on himself when he isn’t doing well, it’s sure better than the alternative: his team not having him at all.
To see the boxscore from the game, click here.