Rockets Survive Gordon's Second Half Heroics, Escape With 101-100 Win Over BullsThe Houston Rockets led the Chicago Bulls 74-53 late in the third quarter but when the final buzzer sounded they barely escaped with a 101-100 victory. This comes on the heels of the Rockets' collapse on Tuesday night versus the San Antonio Spurs, when they blew a 19 point lead to lose by eight. Tracy McGrady led the Rockets with 21 points and he also had 11 rebounds and seven assists. Yao Ming, despite some shooting difficulties (7-19 from the field), dominated his matchup with Ben Wallace, producing 20 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Wallace had one point, five rebounds and five steals. Houston outrebounded Chicago 48-35 and did not allow the Bulls to get an offensive rebound until midway through the second quarter. The main reason that the Bulls mounted a comeback is a spectacular second half performance by Ben Gordon, who pumped in 30 of his 37 points after halftime.
The Bulls made six of their first seven shots from the field but then missed six of their next seven shots. They matched their biggest lead of the first quarter when P.J. Brown hit a jumper with a second left to put them up 26-20. Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich each scored seven points in the quarter for the Bulls, while McGrady countered with seven for the Rockets. Yao got off to a slow start. He did not hold his post position strongly against Wallace, allowing him to slip in front and steal several entry passes. Both big men went to the bench at the 3:55 mark. Yao merely needed to catch his wind, while Wallace was escorted to the locker room; it was later reported that he had a minor biceps injury and also needed to have one of his ankles retaped. Wallace returned to the game early in the second quarter.
The Rockets tied the game at 28 with 8:00 remaining when Yao executed a gorgeous spin move and dunked over Wallace. Houston went on an 18-7 run in the next six minutes. Houston led 50-39 at the half. Scott Padgett had 11 points and five rebounds for the Rockets. Yao scored 10 points despite shooting 3-10 from the field and grabbed nine rebounds. McGrady had seven points and five assists, including a nice feed to Yao with .3 seconds left. The Bulls lost their lead when they put their bench players in the game, something that Chicago Coach Scott Skiles acknowledged to TNT's Craig Sager at halftime, but Skiles felt that he had to give Kirk Hinrich and some of his starters some rest.
Houston dominated the third quarter right from the beginning: in less than two minutes, Yao hit a jump hook, Rafer Alston nailed a three pointer and McGrady made a jumper to put the Rockets ahead 57-41. After Alston's three pointer at the 4:21 mark the Rockets were on top 74-53. That would seem to be a big enough cushion but then Gordon started going off, scoring 11 points in the last four minutes of the third quarter in a 16-4 run that cut Houston's lead to 78-69. This was part of a stretch during which the Rockets shot 1-7 from the field and committed seven turnovers.
The Rockets seemed to gather themselves once the fourth quarter began. Yao hit a jump hook over Wallace with 4:32 remaining that put Houston up 90-79 and TNT's Doug Collins said simply, "Just too big"--Yao is too large for Wallace to stop. Houston's lead never dipped below seven until the 1:23 mark. Gordon missed a jumper but the Bulls controlled the rebound and Andres Nocioni hit a big three pointer, slashing the margin to 90-86. Collins would later note that the Rockets could have basically clinched the game by getting a defensive rebound on that possession and retaining a seven point lead. Instead, we saw a furious last 83 seconds of action during which Gordon scored nine points (!) and the Rockets seemed incapable of getting one stop.
A key sequence happened when Houston led 92-86 with less than 35 seconds left. McGrady missed a jump shot but Kirk Snyder committed a loose ball foul, sending Gordon to the free throw line. Houston Coach Jeff Van Gundy took Snyder out of the game and TNT's cameras caught him screaming at Snyder, "I just told you not to foul! I just f------ told you!" Collins commented, "That's how you cough a game up when it looks like you've got it in your back pocket." Gordon made both free throws while Van Gundy paced the sidelines, repeatedly screaming out to his team "Poise!" and pointing to his head for emphasis.
Alston only converted one of two free throws on the next Houston possession, while Gordon drove to the hoop, drew a foul and sank both free throws to pull Chicago to within 93-90. McGrady and Battier made four free throws and Gordon hit a bank shot to make the score 97-92 with 20 seconds remaining. Gordon countered with a three pointer at the 15 second mark and it was suddenly a one possession game. Alston appeared to do the Ickey Shuffle on the ensuing inbounds play before calling a timeout but the officials did not call travelling.
Alston and Head made four three throws sandwiched around a missed three pointer by Gordon and the Rockets were up 101-95 with six seconds left. Chicago executed a crisp inbounds play and Nocioni scored a layup with four seconds remaining. Battier then lofted a wounded duck inbounds pass toward midcourt that the Bulls deflected and controlled. Nocioni got the ball and drilled a three pointer as time ran out. He tried to jump into Battier and draw a foul but the officials did not buy it; it is unclear why the usually heady Battier threw such a casual pass and then was even anywhere near Nocioni with Houston up four.
The Rockets made so many mistakes down the stretch that it almost felt like they lost the game even though they won. Will the real Houston Rockets please stand up? This team has a lot of talent--anchored by stars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady--and is capable of matching up with anybody in the NBA. Their sideline and top of the key pick and roll plays involving Yao and T-Mac almost always lead to an open shot, so it is hard to understand why this team goes through such prolonged scoring droughts.
>TNT ran some interesting graphics during the game. One of them showed the Rockets' record the past three years with Yao and T-Mac in the lineup versus their record without them. Not surprisingly, Houston is 74-41 with their two superstars and only 16-41 without them. Last year, the split was 21-10 versus 13-38; over a full 82 game schedule, that would equal 56-26 with Yao and T-Mac and 21-61 without them. Although TNT did not break these numbers done further, I recall that for most of last year the Rockets had trouble winning even one game without T-Mac playing--even if Yao did play.
>Another graphic showed that Van Gundy's Rockets are 32-3 when scoring at least 100 points at home.
>A third graphic indicated that the Rockets outscored the Bulls by 12 with T-Mac in the game and trailed by three when he was on the bench (the Bulls' flurry of points late in the game cut into that, but even by the end the Rockets were still in the plus territory with him and in the minus territory without him).
>Before the game, TNT's studio crew offered their observations about Yao, who is putting up the best numbers of his career so far. Reggie Miller is reluctant to call Yao the best center in the league and wondered aloud if Houston will be able to make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Charles Barkley questioned if Houston will even make the playoffs, but Miller and Kenny Smith vehemently said that the Rockets will qualify for postseason play. Barkley said that Yao is still not as dominant as Shaquille O'Neal because Yao does not draw double teams. Smith added that Yao has always been a scoring center but wondered if he can make the players around him better, pointing out that a lot of players had the best seasons of their careers playing alongside Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon and other great big men.
>McGrady told TNT that he plans to retire in three years when his current contract is up, explaining that he feels like he has already lost a step after 10 years in the league (he is only 27). He admitted that he would miss the game but said that he looks forward to spending time with his wife and two kids. An outstanding high school pitcher, T-Mac works out with Roger Clemens and said that he is seriously considering playing baseball after he retires from hoops.
>T-Mac also indicated that he is perfectly willing to be a playmaker and reduce his scoring now that Yao is scoring so much. That did not go over well with TNT's studio crew or Collins, all of whom insisted that for the Rockets to reach their potential that T-Mac must be the primary guy. The ironies here are delicious. Shaq and Kobe won three titles together despite fussing and feuding all along. The consensus of most analysts was that Kobe should defer to Shaq and let the big man dominate. Now, T-Mac and Yao seem to get along splendidly, the team wins a high percentage of games when both players are healthy and T-Mac is perfectly content to feed the big man. You'd think that his unselfishness would be praised. Instead, we hear Barkley say on the one hand that Yao is not "dominant" enough and on the other hand that T-Mac should shoot more. Now I'm really confused.
>Van Gundy has not put free agent acquisition Bonzi Wells on the court yet because he says that Wells is not in shape. According to TNT, Wells fired back that he signed up to play basketball, not run a marathon. This could be an interesting situation to watch during the season.
>The Bulls have a lot of talented players but the chemistry is just not there yet, particularly with the bench players. Part of that is because Skiles still hasn't decided who his bench players are. Gordon has been a starter and a reserve as Skiles still tries to figure out the best way to utilize the streaky, undersized shooting guard.
>Collins is a big Battier fan: "He's a winner. He's a champion. He's a guy you want on your team. He brings energy and that's why they went out to get him." Collins believes that Battier's energy is particularly important for the Rockets because Yao and T-Mac, the team's two best players, are low energy guys. Collins feels that the team needs a spark, an energy boost if you will, and that Battier is the perfect guy to supply that.
posted by David Friedman @ 12:19 AM