Thursday, May 07, 2009

Rockets Round II: The Empire Strikes Back

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

Kobe Bryant is Darth Vader. Phil Jackson is Emperor Palpatine. Sasha Vujacic is Jar Jar Binks if Jar Jar were a Jedi gone to the Dark Side. Because he sure pulled the Jedi mind trick on Von Wafer. They were former teammates, the have history. It's obvious. And Jar Jar already knows how to get under any player's skin--but particularly Wafer because of how much Wafer wants to show up the Lakers. But Von needs to be careful. He built an NBA career with this season. He can't go and ruin it now because he can't let Jar Jar's antics go.

Back to the Lakers as Empire analogy... it doesn't even have to be science fiction. The Lakers, like any empire in history with their grandiosity and prestige, merely expected to get their way. Game 1 was a rude awakening and, of course, in Game 2, Vader and the Lakers had to regulate with a heavy hand. Which means shoulders, elbows and knees, oh my.

The Houston Rockets, you see, play in as the unassuming working class. They work hard. Yes, they are physical, they play rough but they are not dirty. They don't do what Vader, Jar Jar and Derek Fisher... let's say, Boba Fett (yes, I know he's technically just a bounty hunter but isn't his head shaped a lot like Fett's helmet?) are willing to do assert their dominance. That's what makes the Lakers the Lakers. They do these things because a.) for some misguided reason, they think they need to and b.) they can get away with it. Such are the spoils for fame and prestige. Kobe can get away with anything--and Artest can't even have a "friendly" conversation without getting ejected--but then again, so can Rajon Rondo, so who the heck knows?

The point is, the Lakers showed they will play dirty to win or NEED to play dirty to win. They ARE cheap shot artists. That's what they do. The Houston Rockets are not and they shouldn't start just because L.A. sets the precedent. Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley summed it up perfectly in what may be the first time the TNT after-party has said everything there needs to be said about this game. If the Lakers think Houston is going to be intimidated, they're in for another rude awakening. The Rockets are "pit-bulls." They've surrounded Yao with pit-bulls (Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes, Shane Battier, Ron Artest, Carl Landry, Kyle Lowry) who can take whatever you dish and keep coming back. They're Mickey Ward and Arturo Gatti all rolled up into one. Yes, both bouts of epic carnage in one. That may be overstating it, but you get the idea.

And, then there's what Chuck and Kenny said about Kobe. He better have three more of these kind of games if the Lakers want to win. Because even this one wasn't easy--they gave it all they had and won ONE game with the likelihood they'll lose Derek Fisher for at least the next and possibly Kobe Bryant. "That was a hard 40 points," spoke the Chuck Wagon and he's right but to be sure, if anyone's up for it, it's Kobe.

Houston, for their part, won't retaliate, shouldn't retaliate. They'll just keep playing their game, hard and physical. It's understood, consider what Artest had to say about the physical play, "we're naturally tough, we're naturally like that." As if to say he (and Battier) know the Lakers are just pretending, merely acting tough because they're manhood has been questioned in the media. And, like most instances when someone is trying this hard to draw a reaction from someone else, they reveal more about themselves. The Lakers have resorted to this; their confidence is waning. So, go for the jugular. Push them ever closer to the brink. Push them over.

This is the series to watch now.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Yao Returns in his Greatest Game

The buzzer sang with the sweet timbre heard only by fans of the winning team and shortly after it ended, the sound dimmed. Everything was quiet, not just the TV or TNT's post-game show, because it never is, but everything including that was quiet. And, I could hear only a continuous, low hum. Shock. And I've been in shock all day.

Trying to clear my head enough to write anything substantive about last night's upset win over the Lakers had been a fruitless exercise until now. It was quite simply a joy to watch. The kind that Rockets fans haven't really had a chance to get used to. But after a first round series win and an upset win away from home, we should start.

In Yao Ming's 7 seasons, this was the greatest single game of his NBA career (thus far). Whatever the Rockets needed him to do, he did, but it was more than just that. L.A. couldn't put him down. After what was at the time a heart-stopping collision with Kobe late in the 4th, he came back and finished the game. I have to admit I thought it was over--that once again it was too good to be true. But Yao rose, like a phoenix with a clipped wing, but he rose and he came back and he helped Houston win this game.

And, in that moment, Yao was reborn. Houston fans were baptized. Yao did what the great sports heroes of Houston's past have done. More than his fair share, more than just what was expected of him. He overcame adversity and what had to be deep and subconscious fears about that knee and he willed Houston to a win. If he can get to Game 2 without any complications and finish this series, win or lose, the demons, the little mogwais embedded in Yao's structural integrity may finally be banished. And Houston fans may look brightly to the future.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Yao Line 02.17.09: Refs Still Terrible

20 pts | 9-15 FGs | 12 rebs | 3 asts | 2 blks

Get used to that line-up, that's the one that will get Houston into the playoffs and, perhaps ironically, out of the first round of the playoffs. With McGrady's announcement of an impending season-ending microfracture surgery on the faulty knee that has bugged him all season, the drama is finally over. Will he or won't he play has finally been decided once and for all and everyone will be better for it.

Which isn't to say the Rockets are a better team without him. McGrady gave the Rockets the potential to go deep into the playoffs with his talent alone combined with this personnel. But without him, the Rockets may actually be better off in the traditional concept of team. The ceiling might be lower but this Rockets team should still not only make the playoffs but get out of the first round. Especially if they keep playing as they did with the Nets in town beating NJ 114-88.

For the most part, the Rockets have looked more cohesive on offense without T-Mac in the lineup this season. When Rafer Alston is the sole primary ball-handler, and because he is not a scorer near McGrady's class even with a bum knee, Houston is more likely to let the offense set up and run its course. And when Alston plays with the kind of energy and verve he did last night, the Rockets are as solid at the point as any team. Von Wafer was again impressive, playing like a man possessed, trying to solidify his place in the rotation. The Rockets have needed someone as singularly committed to scoring efficiently for a long time. And Artest was again very solid, proving you can't guard him one-on-one and never without an ice bath after the game. Still, I wish he wasn't so quick to pull the 3-pt trigger--it would work wonders for his shooting percentage.

But all of this, of course, comes down to Yao and how he handles the pressure of the team now being on his shoulders going into the stretch run. There's nothing that would suggest he won't handle it well. And maybe he won't have to handle it alone. Rafer Alston has already stepped up with no qualms about his desire to lead the team. A move that is indicative of what a team is with Yao at the helm. A team in the truest sense of the word. Yao is a star in stature but not in personality. The Rockets are a team that can only thrive with the support of every key player.

Think of Adelman's offense--and now with a team that looks more determined to run it--Yao is the featured option but not necessarily the center-piece. That's what can be great about this offense when its run correctly. Yao is the featured but not everything has to run through him but when it does it is as much for him to be a playmaker as a scorer. There are several options available and none bigger than Artest. Everyone has to make plays and at least with the Nets in town, pretty much everyone did.

Oh and the refs still have no clue how to officiate Yao. And here, I used to think Shaq was being a crybaby. It even seems to be contagious to the rest of the Rockets. Lucky the Nets were so bad it didn't matter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Yao Line 01.13.09: Kobe Good, Refs Bad

19 pts | 9-18 FGs | 1-1 FTs | 17 rebs | 5 asts | 3 blks

I'm just going to say it... NBA referees are terrible this year. It's not just for the Houston Rockets though Rockets fans acutely feel the pain, NBA "officials" been terrible everywhere. Dirk Nowitzki hollers 'cause hears me.

Sure, I'm biased.. I think they're always terrible. I'm convinced only terrible people want to become NBA officials. But they're worse this year than I can ever remember. It's as if every official convened in some clandestine double-door garage in the off-season and game-planned on just how unreasonable they would be this season, how grossly pompous and arrogant, how drunk with power and worse, how they would proceed in stifling any possibility of enjoyment for the fan by flubbing the most obvious of calls. And that symposium on the flop? A joke, a terrible joke by terrible people. Refs are no more perceptive of the flop than ever before. Thanks again, Vlade.

In Houston's 105-100 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Luis Scola was again rendered useless; his an inexhaustible will to power eschewed for the lazy flopping of the Lakers. Yao and Landry both penalized for standing around, which this season, is also a foul. To "officials": the Los Angeles Lakers do not need your help.

Nevertheless, through the incomprehensible sabatoge, the Rockets played a hell of a game through 47:30 min. Yao was dominant as facilitator of the Adelman offense and everyone else just made shots. No scoring drought for this one, Von Wafer had a point to elucidate for Los Angeles, something about guaranteed contracts. But then Kobe did what Kobe does. He's good.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Tao of the Underdog

There's a trend among elite teams today (the Patriots and Celtics being perfect examples). They are able to cast themselves as underdogs no matter what their situation. Through transference, method acting or sheer delusion, they have a collective chip on their lengthy shoulders. They form an insular fraternity with a concentrated dedication to a singular goal. To win and prove everyone else wrong. They convince themselves it is them against the world. And no matter what happens beyond them, they remain focused.

Their thing, their power animal, whether it be their offense or their defense, is their own. It's blessed and sacred and no one is above it. Bigger egos than McGrady and Artest have bought into this competitive tao. Now is as good a time as any for the Rockets to start. The media is unconvinced and so are the fans. The Rockets can unite and follow this path of underdog. And they won't even need the use of devices or delusion. They are underdogs.

The "good loss" shouldn't be thrown around loosely and last night's 103-100 loss to the Hawks, contrary to popular opinion, was a game that should have been won. So not really a "good loss" but if nothing else can be gleaned from it, at least Yao and the other role players look like they have bought in, if even just for one game. That's underdog effort. Close to Rockets against the world but not quite. Every player has to get their chips in. Rockets are a lunch-pail team with no attitude. Now they have a reason to get one.

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On a lighter note... Welcome back John and Raymond to the digital world. As of January 1st, Yao Ming Mania is back online. Congrats! You guys have definitely earned it. See you at YMM real soon.