Sunday, December 28, 2008

R3: Rise of the Ron

I'm now convinced Ron Artest is Cyberdyne Systems Model 102. I haven't seen any active player today take contact like quite Ron Artest. The man repels opponents, like heroes in martial arts flicks. The enemy moves at him, hits him and yet, his chi somehow delivers the punishment. Lebron James is the best finisher in the game, no doubt. Artest doesn't quite have the balance or athleticism to do what Lebron does around the rim when fouled. But Artest is the hardest case around. He responds the same to contact as no contact. No grimace, no yell, no body crumple... all things Rockets fans have gotten used to. In Ron-Ron, Houston has an indomitable and single-minded machine.

Artest's command performance in last night's 2nd OT was the stuff of saviors, the stuff of folklore. On the tail end of a back-to-back, the Rockets, who'd let the Jazz off the hook in the 4th, were shooting blanks late in the game. Yao Ming, who had found success against Utah's reserve bigs throughout the game, struggled as the "officials" let defenders get away with just about anything when bodying up Yao, a growing trend.

Still, in the final minutes and 1st OT, Adelman kept calling Yao's number, trying to exploit the mismatch but Yao, exhausted, could not finish. He otherwise played a strong game, indicative of his vastly improving stamina and timing, defending the cup with authority and looking quicker to the boards than he was earlier in the season. Yao was certainly more decisive offensively in this game; and despite his misses, he made the right moves down the stretch--given his skill set. Finesse moves to free himself up for open looks but other than a gorgeous left hand sky hook late, he just couldn't finish.

So, Adelman adjusted and went to Artest in the 2nd OT. The difference was distinct. Artest moved powerfully and with more control in the low-post. And as the Rocket's had deferred to Yao for the duration of crunch time, Artest had surprisingly fresh legs and the Jazz had no answer, he was just quicker than his defenders. Utah put Ron-Ron on the line 8 times and he hit all 8 FTs. Rockets win. Yes, the Rockets should have never let the Jazz back into the game, they'll have to continue to work on closing opponents out (particularly the bench for whom it is much their responsibility) but its nice to know that the Rockets have more than one option, and more than just two.

They have Ron.

Fans, however, are gonna have to come up with a better cheer than the less than imaginative "Ron-Ar-test! Ron-Ar-test!"

Friday, December 26, 2008

Rockets a Top 4 Team in the League?

During an epic Lakers-Celtics Christmas special yesterday, former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy put four teams in the category of legitimate contenders... Celtics, Lakers, Cavs and... the Houston Rockets.

Van Gundy, has been a rare broadcasting proponent of Houston and its players since joining the team of Mark Jackson and Mike Breen on ABC--in that, he actually defends them or offers perspective. His experience coaching in Houston offers such perspective or maybe it skews it. That could go either way but the statement wasn't exactly contested on the broadcast. So the question is, why doesn't it seem Rockets fans are as convinced as Van Gundy?

Houston currently stands at 19-10, good for the second-best record in the West (tied with San Antonio) and they've won 8-11 in December. Only three of those teams, however, are plus-.500 and against those teams, Houston is only 1-2. So it might be easy for the more skeptical fan to write off this December stretch as a weak schedule but a deeper look into the numbers may also be revealing.

All the other three teams Van Gundy mentioned are in the Top 10 in the league in scoring, with Los Angeles leading the NBA. Houston stands 15th at 98.3 ppg. Boston and Cleveland are 1 and 2 respectively in opponents PPG. Houston kicks in at a respectable 8th. And while Los Angeles may only be 14th on the list, their 9.4 point differential is good for 3rd in the league... behind Cleveland (12.7) and Boston (10.3). Which should be the most telling figure. These teams are dominating the league. Houston is respectable again at 5th (4.3) in point differential but they have neither put away teams consistently or looked particularly dominant on the court.

Boston, Cleveland and Los Angeles are already playing at a Championship-caliber level and winning each in some record-setting pace. Houston is not. They still haven't quite clicked, they haven't achieved that visible on-court harmony, that spiritual and unspoken rapport of Champions. And yet, they are still 19-10, still carrying an awful lot of talent. So, depending on where we stand on half a glass of water, Van Gundy's inclusion of Houston on his short list of contenders could be an optimistic look at a team finally starting to play well (but that still has yet to reach potential) or the empty raves of a somewhat delusional former coach... who still lives in Houston.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Yao Line: 12.16.08: Big 3 Finally Arrives

32 pts, 13-19 FGs, 6-7 FTs, 7 rebs, 1 ast, 2 blks

Yao's strong offensive numbers were overlooked or overshadowed in the usual highlight shows by McGrady's triple-double... and Nene's dunk on Yao. The dunk was no. 2 on Sportscenter's Top Plays. It was pretty vicious. Still, Yao played on with ego in check and in what appears a lessening commonality in star athletes, he doesn't seem to need the media validation to keep on keeping on. For his part, Yao looked quick, decisive and energetic but still left some dunking to be desired. There were plenty of opportunities for payback in that game.

But Yao can probably live with Nene's 5-14 shooting and 5 fouls. Last night was a solid in-game turnaround from a poor defensive first half to lock-down in the 2nd and with no sacrifice in offense. And the impressive Rockets scoring came against a surprisingly solid Denver D. One that's 15th in points against (98.2)--not bad considering 3rd in points for (103.4)--and 3rd in FG% allowed (.427). Rockets were blazing from the floor and never hit one of those extended droughts, a performance certainly encouraging for Rockets fans to see.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Tale of Two Yaos

Haven't been able to watch any games since the previous post until this last back-to-back but any game (especially any B2B) is a good indication of where Yao is at physically. Looking at the stats alone, it would seem to be a tale of two Yaos but beyond the numbers, it's the same slowly but steadily improving Yao we've seen all season, just two different teams and the first without a closer.

Against the 6-15 Memphis Grizzlies, the Rockets fell behind early but managed to creep back into the game on with Luis Scola putting in work. But when they needed someone to step up and impose their will to get Houston over the top, Yao was unable. Not unwilling but physically unable to step up. Against a superior 12-8 Hawks squad, Houston got out to the early start but let the Hawks back in it. Joe Johnson was unconscious in just shy of folk tale form in the 3rd quarter and it was contagious to the rest of the Hawks. Again, it looked like Yao wasn't going to be able to keep the Rockets above water. He was getting beat to the ball on rebounds and committed costly turnovers. The difference in the second game was Ron Artest. He came in and willed the Rockets to the lead on offense AND defense--Johnson didn't just go cold late in the 4th. He also gave Yao a chance to gather his bearings and put the Hawks away late.

What should be telling about these two games is that Yao still isn't there yet. He's improving but not at the level of dominance he had attained the past two seasons before he was injured. He's solid but not dominant. I can't remember ever seeing a quieter 19 rebounds. But he's out there, just playing at about the level he was in his first 3rd or 4th season. Sometimes tentative, not as quick to the ball and not playing powerfully. He's back to layups instead of dunks.

It's hard to know what it is exactly. Stamina, a subconscious unwillingness to stress the healing leg, longer stretches on the bench, longer stretches on the court. Or maybe he's on to something. Maybe Yao's consciously taking his time. So long as T-Mac and Artest can make it to a few games here and there, they should be able to get into the post-season in the West where it won't matter what seed they are. They'll just have to win. So maybe, just maybe if Yao can save it up until the playoffs, it might be more conducive to Yao making it a season injury-free. But he's too much of a competitor and team-first guy to be so calculating, isn't he? It is certainly a less dominant Yao we are seeing on the court right now. And its still too early to tell if he's incapable of resurrecting the other one but if 24 and 19 is still a quiet game, I think we'll take it.

Originally posted at Yao Central on 2008-12-10 12:43