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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Landry's Big Fourth Quarter Lifts Rockets Over Pacers

Seldom used rookie Carl Landry scored a career-high 22 points--including 13 in the fourth quarter--as the Houston Rockets beat the Indiana Pacers 106-103 at Conseco Fieldhouse. Tracy McGrady shot just 6-19 from the field but finished with 19 points, nine assists, five rebounds and three steals. Yao Ming also had a poor shooting night (4-12 from the field, though he did make 9 of 12 free throw attempts) but still posted a double double (17 points, 12 rebounds). The Pacers are without the services of injured four-time All-Star Jermaine O'Neal and are thus forced to rely on their young players to pick up the slack. Danny Granger led the Pacers with 22 points and Shawne Williams scored 17 points on 7-9 shooting. They received a lot of inside help from veteran center Jeff Foster, who tied his season-highs in both points (13) and rebounds (17). There is not much finesse to Foster's game but he is a tireless worker who does not shy away from contact; the extra possessions that he provides with his rebounding and all out hustle would be even more valuable on a contending team--such contributions sometimes get lost in the shuffle on a team that is not good enough to take full advantage of them.

Indiana jumped out to a 21-13 lead--which turned out to be the Pacers' biggest advantage of the game--but by the end of the first quarter Houston was ahead, 25-23. The Rockets maintained a small lead for most of the game until an 11-4 Pacers run late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter put the Pacers up 88-83 with exactly eight minutes remaining. Landry scored five points in the next 33 seconds to tie the game, converting two dunks off of feeds from Aaron Brooks and making a free throw for a three point play after the first slam. The Pacers stubbornly built the margin back up to five points three more times in the next three minutes but the Rockets just as stubbornly fought back on each occasion, with Landry doing most of the damage. Indiana's Troy Murphy hit two free throws to knot the score at 101 with 2:25 remaining but Landry hit a jumper and a free throw and Shane Battier added two free throws down the stretch while the Pacers could only produce one Mike Dunleavy layup, missing seven field goal attempts during that crucial time. As Pacers Coach Jim O'Brien lamented after the game, "I thought we had a very productive fourth quarter offensively. We were very crisp. We just did not knock down shots."

Landry, a Purdue product who had a lot of friends and family in attendance, was the main topic of conversation in both locker rooms after the game. Houston Coach Rick Adelman said, "Carl was terrific...I thought that he played really active and really good in the second quarter. He made some big plays down the stretch (in the fourth quarter). He really played well in practice all along and the more time went on the more we really wanted to get him into games and see how he would respond to game conditions. Every time I've played him in a game I think that he's been effective, except once. He's very lively and he's very athletic and you saw tonight that he can make that 15-17 foot jumper."

Landry did not seem awed by his opportunity or the way that he took advantage of it: "I tried to do what I do every night--and that is go out and give a lot of energy. I didn't get tired until I got hit in the head with about 40 seconds left in the game."

McGrady added, "He showed everything out there tonight: dunks, 12 footers, floaters in the lane, rebounding and hustle and going from one end to the other and blocking shots."

Yao stated with conviction, "We just did not want to lose this game. It's that simple. We don't want to lose another game. I know that we played well in the last five games (the Rockets went 5-1 prior to arriving in Indiana). I think that the playoffs are right there and we have a chance. When we play these teams (Indiana has a losing record), it's not disrespect, but we really have to win." Regarding Landry, Yao said, "He'll be a good player. He knocked down shots, played inside, defended well. Maybe he made some mistakes but I did, too, in my first game."

Yao seemed skeptical of the idea that playing close to his old college campus helped Landry. Told that this was like a home game for Landry, Yao replied, "He's from Milwaukee." A reporter explained that Landry went to school near Indianapolis and Yao replied with a smile, "Whatever makes him feel better." The way that Yao delivered that line drew laughs from the assembled media. I heard him say it live and I've replayed the tape several times and I'm still not sure if Yao really meant to be funny when he said that or we just read something into it. Yao certainly did not say this in a mean spirited way and he hastened to add with total seriousness, "I mean, we need him to play well tomorrow, too. I'm happy for him." We all know that Yao's game has grown by leaps and bounds but it is also great to see how well he has learned the English language and how relaxed and comfortable he is bantering with reporters. Could you imagine moving to China and in addition to learning a new way to do your job having to learn how to speak Chinese? Yao really deserves a lot of credit on many levels.

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Notes From Courtside:

In his pregame standup, Coach O'Brien explained how he is trying to develop his roster: "We want to be able to go with both lineups (i.e., a small one and a big one) on any given night. We want to have the flexibility to continue to develop two lineups to make teams adjust to us and also to be able to use the depth that we have at the wing spots."

He also talked about how he planned to deal with Yao Ming: "We always try to front guys like that. When he gets the basketball on the wing and he dribbles the basketball we're going to come after him in a trapping situation and try to get the basketball out of his hands. When he is on defense, we're going to try to use him in pick and rolls as many times as possible and also flash the guy who he is guarding to the high post and play through him in our passing game. We want to make him chase and run as much as possible and be involved in as many defensive plays as possible."

The Pacers actually did a decent job versus Yao, holding him below his norms in terms of scoring and field goal percentage. In effect, Foster's production canceled out Yao's and that has to be considered a victory for Indiana. The problem, of course, is that in the process of containing Yao the Pacers enabled other players--most notably Landry--to get open.

Noting that the Rockets are a good team whose record at the moment leaves them out of the top eight in the tough Western Conference, O'Brien quipped, "I'm sure that they wish that they were Houston, Pennsylvania and could be in the East, because they are formidable."

***

Prior to the game, I spoke with Jack Sikma, the seven-time All-Star center who is currently an assistant coach with the Rockets. We talked about his experiences playing in two NBA Finals and winning one championship in his first two NBA seasons. He also told me about his methods for teaching the big men that he coaches (which of course includes both Yao and Landry).

Look for more information about Sikma in my upcoming article about his career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:21 AM

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