Wednesday, April 30, 2008

'Respect' the T-shirt

Just had this tee made up. Might be a little late in the game, but Duke and I sort of conjured it up while watching the game last night.

Respect the Hustle

That's how you protect your homecourt.

Luis Scola, Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes are the three-headed monster of hustle. We're working on a t-shirt right now. But they're not the only ones, it's become contagious. The Rockets are those guys... the ones at the gym who just take the game too seriously. They never know when to quit, dive after every loose ball, foul you hard and challenge every shot, even when in a pickup game. They're relatively unathletic, undersized and offensively-challenged, but you have to respect the hustle. Now it's back to Utah and its the Jazz looking like they've underestimated their opponent.

What a difference a star with his jumper back makes. There were many glimpses of a youthful T-Mac out there last night and for once, the Rockets didn't need him to dominate the 4th. Win-win. Houston can thank their defensive intensity for that. Holding Utah to 32 pts in the 1st half (which could have easily been 28) and a franchise playoff record 69 for the game? Unexpected yes, but having seen if first hand, certainly not beyond the realm of a repeat performance. Maybe the Rockets can get another streak going now. They certainly looked like they were in the middle of one last night.

• • •

Yao Links: For those of you who were asking about Yao's charity roast, there was a short video on the event posted at last week. Yao Ming Mania also posted some highlights and recently posted some additional videos of the event. Click the link to check them out.

Originally posted at Yao Central on April 30, 2008 09:10 AM

Monday, April 28, 2008

One Rebound Shy of a Chance

One. Rebound. Shy.

You can't question the effort. You can't question the tactics. Just one rebound would have given the Rockets a chance. A win would have given all of Houston that air of destiny; that winning the series was meant to be. Instead, Okur's offensive rebound and two clutch free throws shifts that destiny heavily in favor of Utah. Every little play they need to make, they seem to make.

As a fan, it wouldn't have been as excruciating had McGrady or Landry just grabbed the rebound and missed the game-tying shot. Giving up the rebound just tore your heart right out. You almost wish Williams had just made the second one.

Let's face it, the situation looks bleak. Down 3-1 and going to Houston, if the Rockets weren't supposed to win the series before, they certainly aren't supposed to win this series now. But nothing is finished before its done. They just need to win one game. We can worry about the rest after that.

• • •

Yao Links: Jonathan Feigen has written a nice piece on Yao's rehab workouts. It's definitely worth a read. China Daily reports that China has drawn Spain and the U.S. in the FIBA Olympic draw. Needless to say, China has a tough road ahead. In fact, they'll play the U.S. in the opening round.

Originally posted at Yao Central on April 27, 2008 09:49 PM

Friday, April 25, 2008

Carl "The Tooth" Landry, Houston's Newest Hero

It was, quite simply, awesome. The Rockets had all but put it away, then inexplicably did everything in their power to give it back to the Jazz. Enter Houston's newest no. 1 son... Carl "The Tooth" Landry. With seconds left and clinging to a 1-pt advantage, the Utah Jazz patiently ran their sets, just waiting for the right point of attack. You almost have to marvel at Deron Williams' patience and composure for finding just the right timing and angle to attack. Except that instead of dumping it down low to an open Carlos Boozer, he decided to take the shot. And instead of charging the rim, he decided to fadeaway. Both those decisions put Landry in a position to change the face of this series. The block, the rebound and the save from out of bounds with only 0.2 seconds remaining. Heroic.

And we can all thank Rafer Alston for getting the Rockets in position. The often maligned point is finally the guard that, at least the collective consciousness of New York City's finest playgrounds knew that he could be. He did exactly what Houston needed. Skip set the tempo, directed traffic, handled the rock, attacked the rim and gave the Rockets another bona fide scorer. And best of all, his play in the 1st half gave Adelman a chance to rest McGrady. T-Mac's legs were noticeably more spry in the 4th as a result of it. Utah has still only lost to four teams at home this season. Houston's just the only team that's done it twice. They'll need to do it a third time no matter what, but if they can pull it off back-to-back, it changes the entire complexion of this series. There is suddenly new optimism for all but the most delusional of Rockets fans (who never had a doubt).

Oh and T-Mac, for making my friends and I trample the local diner like we won the national championship, for making me repeatedly spill things around me at the bar and for making me lose my voice today... yes, I blame you.

Originally posted at Yao Central on April 25, 2008 07:49 PM

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Almost Heroes

For 3 quarters, Tracy McGrady was a basketball god. He carried the Rockets on both sides of the ball in a way nobody has seen since his Orlando Magic days--maybe not even then. He displayed the kind of MVP-caliber play that was always within the reach of his talent. And yet, as he fell short of the finish line, so did Houston. But he was so good 1 through 3 that Doug Collins, Magic and really the entire TNT staff felt sorry for McGrady and his 4th quarter performance (0-4 FGs, 1 pt). They were so apologetic, you would have thought McGrady was out there with the Dulles Vikings.

Houston gave it likely the highest amount of effort that they're capable; they played with intensity and the will to win. The Jazz are just that good. Barkley thinks the Jazz and Lakers are the best teams in the West. I'm not sure he's wrong.

We can pore over the minutiae in every possession that led to the 90-84 loss. And maybe we should. Inconsistent officiating, a silly, unnecessary foul (that certainly didn't need to be called but did) from Scola that negated the tying 3FG by Bobby Jackson, an awkward bounce leading to an offensive rebound by Kirilenko who found Ashton Kutcher for the shot that sealed the deal. We can review every miscue but the recurring theme is that when the Rockets faltered, the Jazz took advantage. There's no doubt the Rockets played hard, now they have to execute better in the 4th.

Free throws would be a nice place to start. Then better close-outs on rebounds and loose balls. But the key is getting McGrady into the 4th quarter with fresher legs. It pretty clear now from watching games 1 & 2 that McGrady just isn't conditioned well enough to carry a team for 4 quarters of playoff-caliber basketball. In that sense, he is not Lebron James or Kobe Bryant, both players who've had plenty of practice going solo. T-Mac has just had Yao too long. He's given Mac the chance to take too many plays off which has adversely affected his stamina; and the rest of the Rockets have relied too much on Yao to curve their FT shooting. I'm kidding but not entirely. If anything is indicative of how much the Rockets miss their co-star, it lies therein.

Getting Rafer Alston back in the lineup (scheduled for Game 3 in Utah) should help. The Rockets will have back another play-maker who can create his own shot, hit the 3FG and shoulder more of the ball-handling. If he isn't too rusty, Alston will give McGrady more rest. A Bobby Jackson and Rafer Alston back-court seems far more reliable in McGrady's absence than Jackson/Head or Brooks/Head. Alston will also make Jackson more effective and explosive offensively off the bench. Coming in his traditional role as instant offense he will be able to focus more on making shots than setting up the offense. It's not too late. Utah's 37-4 home record, so what? The Rockets have been close, now they must close out. It doesn't matter where.

Originally posted at Yao Central on April 22, 2008 09:13 PM

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Actually, it is on T-Mac

Down double-digits late in the 4th, it seems obvious to everyone except perhaps T-Mac. The man should have the ball in his hands. The fact that it wasn't or rarely was is nobody's fault but Mcgrady's. This game, this series, the playoff losses, all of it being "on him" is perhaps not a fair characterization, let's give him that. But, as far as it is a team effort and everyone has to contribute to win, Tracy McGrady did not make his contribution.

It's not about how much better McGrady's numbers are supposed to be in the playoffs than the regular season (they certainly were not last night) and it's not about how many of his teams have been seeded 1 through 4 in the post-season and thus favored to win. Both points were made repeatedly in the ESPN broadcast as part of what appeared to be an "it's not T-Mac's fault" campaign. It's about every player making their contributions and everyone did except McGrady. He did a lot of good things, but he didn't do the only thing he needed to, which was control the game in the 4th and lead his team. It's not disappointing that McGrady didn't make any shots in the 4th, it's that he didn't take any (only 3 FGs). In fact, he rarely touched the ball.

At times he looked like he didn't want it. As much as the Jazz were more physical on both sides of the ball and executed better on offense, the Rockets still had a chance to win this game. Yes, it is a team effort. Everyone has to make their contributions. T-Mac, his teammates, his coaching staff, have all made a point of stating that in defense of McGrady's 0-6 playoff record. But it was McGrady who didn't hold up his part of the bargain this game. He'll get another chance Monday night.

Originally posted at Yao Central on April 20, 2008 12:36 PM

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Advantage... and End-of-Season Awards

Feigen said it right in his blog entry (Rockets versus Jazz. Bad matchup. Good news?), the Rockets have a terrible match-up but they're better off. Nobody believes they can win, which is strangely when they win. Plus, they get the added bonus of being underdogs with home-court advantage. And even though T-Mac's backing off the heat on this one, it's still on Mac. Just in a different kind of way.

As Feigen mentions, yes, the Jazz will not double McGrady unless it is warranted. T-Mac must make it so. He doesn't have to play great, just good enough to draw double teams. The offense can then take its course. The hustle and defense of Battier, Scola and Hayes will do what they can against a versatile and physical Jazz front-court. Whatever Boozer, Okur or Kirilenko do, the Jazz will play bad enough on the road to give Houston a chance. Whether Mac likes it or not, the Rockets will win or lose each game based on his shooting. Which isn't to say Mac isn't right about his assessment of the team's new offense. It's not on him to create every play, no, but it is on him to create when no one else can.

But we do prefer him to defer don't we? How many of us cringed last season when he said it was all on him? When he guaranteed 2nd round status? In truth, it is on him, but we don't want Mac to say it, or act it. Because for him, the pretense just seems to be too much pressure. Just play ball like you used to, like you have something to gain instead of everything to lose.

• • •

2007-08 NBA End-of-Season Awards

Most Valuable Player: I've thought all season that despite Kobe clearly in a class of his own as the best competitor (if not, flat out best player) in the league, that Chris Paul was doing unprecedented work for the Hornets. The Hornets... Paul has made them into a contender, not without David West, of course, (but really, would we be talking about the Lakers as a Finals shoe-in without Pau Gasol?) Paul does things on the court physically I've never seen anyone do at any level. Granted I can only go as far back lucidly in the NBA as Isiah, but I watch the EBC at Rucker Park every summer and nothing, not the best street-ballers in the world can do what Paul does. But, as I've been telling Duke and my brother, Train, since after the All-Star break, it goes to who wins the Western Conference. My friends, your MVP is Kobe Bryant. Finally. (Honorable Mention: Chris Paul; Also getting votes: Kevin Garnett, Lebron James)

Coach of the Year: It's Doc Rivers. Anything else is unacceptable. And Tom Thibodeaux should get a nice blurb on the engraving. Biggest single-season turnaround in NBA history (42 gms), 1st in opponents FG% (.419), 3FG% (.316) and point differential (+10.3) and 2nd in opponents PPG (90.3) behind only the Detroit Pistons. Byron Scott did New Orleans proud but Doc made Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett work. Ask Rudy, Dream, Charles and Scottie Pippen how easy that is. Or isn't. (Honorable Mention: Byron Scott; Also getting votes: Rick Adelman, Phil Jackson)

Defensive Player of the Year: It's gotta go to Shane Battier this year. I don't know how he's been completely overlooked in past seasons. But this time, even from a mainstream media perspective, he's impossible to ignore. Everyone saw what he did with Kobe in that game vs. the Lakers on ABC. He was the best defender on a very good Rockets defense. Of course, KG wasn't half bad either. Call me homer. (Honorable Mention: Kevin Garnett; Also getting votes: Chris Paul, Marcus Camby)

Sixth Manu of the Year: Just call it the Ginobili award. (Honorable Mention: Leandro Barbosa, Jason Terry)

Most Improved Player: I've always been a fan of Hedo Turkoglu. I spent 5 months in Turkey, traveling and playing ball and fans out there loved him for being in the NBA but always thought Mehmet Okur was the real deal. Now they know better. Hedo was Orlando's offensive MVP this season, it all generated from him. If you thought otherwise, you wouldn't be crazy, but you'd be wrong. Every year should be a contract year. (Honorable mention: Stephen Jackson)

Rookie of the Year: This is usually a hype award and Kevin Durant has gotten the hype all season long. But Luis Scola and Al Horford have been right there with him for becoming integral pieces to playoff teams. Durant can't say the same about the Sonics. March and April saw significant increases in production from Scola, having been locked into the Rockets starting rotation; and Horford as the Hawks made their push for the 8th spot in the East. Unfortunately, it also saw Durant put up the best numbers of the year. Say what you want about his shot selection but Durant put up 21.8 ppg on .526 shooting in March and 24.3 ppg on .461 shooting in April, not to mention 6.4 rebs and 4.1 asts per. Dropping 42 on the final game of the season doesn't hurt either. Averaging 20+ ppg in the NBA for a full season is not something any rookie can do. So how did Jordan drop 28.2 ppg in 82 gms his rookie year? (Honorable mentions: Al Horford, Luis Scola)

Originally posted at Yao Central on April 17, 2008 11:01 AM

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

It's Desperation Time

The goal ostensibly was to retain home-court advantage after the streak, but the truth is, the Rockets chances of doing that now are slim to nil. The New Orleans Hornets and San Antonio Spurs are both playing now about as well as Houston was during the streak. So it really doesn't matter if they rack up a few losses here and there. With no home-court, the Rockets playoff seeding just doesn't matter. Whoever they play, they just have to get out of the first round. In fact, I'd rather the Rockets play the Hornets than L.A. or San Antonio.

No, the losses aren't the issue. The play is the thing. Last night's loss to Sacramento was antithetical to everything the Rockets had begun to do right. Ditto for San Antonio. Both games were baffling. What is it that makes this team think they don't have to play defense anymore? The streak couldn't have gone to their heads? Or are they really just burnt out? It's hard to say, but it doesn't look good. The playoffs are only 8 games away. The Rockets can't afford to limp into the post-season, especially now, without home-court. You don't mind the losses if they're playing hard and playing their ball, but they are not. And Rockets fans are getting desperate.

• • •

Haven't been to Yao Ming Mania in awhile but they have some entries with great pics (1, 2) of Yao and his rehab workouts... just in case you were wondering. The man's still on crutches, so maybe we shouldn't be too hard on him for not making all the home games.

Originally posted at Yao Central on April 2, 2008 11:18 AM