Commentary

Resilient Rockets refuse to go quietly, force Game 6

Originally Published: April 30, 2008
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Tmac-YaoStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesInjured Rockets center Yao Ming offers a pre-Game 5 hug to Tracy McGrady.

HOUSTON -- I was talking to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey before Game 2 of this series about the challenges Houston faced in playing a strong, talented Utah team without, at that time, the services of Rafer Alston. It looked like a hopeless task.

"The one thing I'll say is that we've always played our best when we've been counted out," Morey told me.

Since he's a numbers guy, too, I immediately teased him about leaning on intangibles. But he had a point -- one that was underscored by Tuesday night's 95-69 pounding of Utah in Game 5.

Once again, the Rockets have done their best work after they've been disregarded -- just like they did when they lost Yao Ming, were counted out of the playoff race, and immediately ripped off the final 10 of their 22 consecutive wins.

After the Rockets dropped the first two games of this series at the Toyota Center, some deranged columnist wrote them off again. I wasn't the only one -- the ushers and other stadium employees were saying their farewells after that game last week, convinced there was no way the Rockets were winning a game in the hostile Energy Solutions Arena.

Certainly Houston isn't out of the woods yet. But after watching the Rockets dominate the Jazz to cut the series to a 3-2 Utah lead, Friday's Game 6 in Salt Lake City suddenly looks very interesting indeed.

So thorough was Tuesday's dismantling that the Rockets even led at halftime -- something that hadn't happened in the previous eleven playoff meetings between these teams over the past two seasons.

And Tracy McGrady actually made a basket in the fourth quarter -- three of them, in fact -- including a gorgeous, spinning bank shot after head-faking Andrei Kirilenko and wheeling away from him.

From start to finish, this looked like the Rockets team that won 22 games in a row and had the league's best record after Dec. 31. Though Houston's brand-name talent doesn't scare anyone, the keys to that streak and this victory were identical -- a suffocating defensive effort and massive output from the bench.

"From the start, our defense was unbelievable," McGrady said. "Taking away their first option, denying their post entry and making it tough. Getting up into them and contesting jumpers, we did it all. We were scrappy tonight."

Indeed, Utah's 69 points was its lowest output of the season -- by eight points. The Jazz had the league's second-best offense in the regular season, while the Rockets had the league's second-best defense, so this series shaped up as the immovable object vs. the irresistible force.

[+] EnlargeTracy McGrady
AP Photo/David J. PhillipTracy McGrady (29 points) and Luis Scola (18) led the way on offense for the Rockets.
Right now, the Rockets' D clearly has the upper hand. A Jazz team that scored at least 95 points in all three regular-season meetings against the Rockets has yet to crack that figure in five tries during this series. Here's another one for you: Utah was held for less than 89 points twice in 82 games during the entire regular season … and twice in the past two games against Houston.

Nearly every Jazz player, as well as coach Jerry Sloan, lamented their abundance of midrange jumpers Tuesday, as Utah's motion offense failed to click and produce its usual barrage of layups and free throws.

"They were terrific defensively," Sloan said. "We couldn't get anything but outside shots. We started shooting those and they just kept putting pressure on us."

And the light is shining increasingly harsh on one of the keys to that offense, forward Carlos Boozer. He continued his underwhelming postseason with 19 points on 8-of-18 shooting and five turnovers. So off was he that he threw a simple inbound pass three feet wide of Matt Harpring for a turnover in the third quarter.

Boozer averaged 21.1 points per game this year to lead the Jazz -- but he hasn't beaten that average in a game since March 30. In five playoff games he's averaged just 16.2 points on 44.6 percent shooting, with 3.0 turnovers; this after an April in which he limped in with 13.9 points per game.

There's no apparent injury; he's just not playing nearly as well as he did earlier in the season, let alone a year ago when he tormented the Rockets in Utah's first-round win. Of course, now he's going against Mt. Mutombo and Chuck Hayes instead of running around Yao.

Boozer conceded the D has been a factor, but added, "Part of it is just playing the game. Just try and take what they give you. Be optimistic out there and try to attack when you get a chance."

In addition to the defense, there was the bench. Houston's second unit outscored Utah's 18-0 in the first half, and it was the subs who began the second quarter with a 9-0 run to stagger the Jazz. By the time the starters came back in, Hayes had made a spin-o-rama hook shot in the lane -- yes, it was that kind of night -- and the Rockets had a 14-point bulge that would never be seriously threatened.

Yet perhaps the biggest change from the first two games of this series has come from the return of Alston. Since he came back in Game 3, the Rockets played Utah to a draw in two games on its home floor and beat the tar out of the Jazz in the one game in Houston.

Alston's effect has been threefold. His return has taken some of the ballhandling responsibility off McGrady's shoulders, allowing him to be fresher down the stretch then he was during his exhausted performance in Game 2. It's also improved the defense at the point of attack, as stopping Williams is a huge key for the Houston defense.

But Tuesday it showed another side -- it allowed Bobby Jackson to be Bobby Jackson. He's not a point guard, as he showed to everyone's satisfaction in Games 1 and 2, but he can be a very effective bench performer on a team like this that needs supplemental scorers. In that role Tuesday, Jackson keyed the bench run to start the second quarter before handing the keys back to Alston.

While we're talking about injuries, that's the other situation that bears watching, as this series has taken an increasing toll on both sides. McGrady's knee and Alston's hamstring have been the big stories, but Adelman revealed before the game that he wasn't even sure Shane Battier would be able to play in Game 4 because his foot was so sore.

That injury resulted from inadvertent kicking by Seattle's Kevin Durant in a late-season game, and despite taking a couple of games off, it hasn't healed. Instead, the Rockets' defensive ace has been nursing it through the series as best he can.

"It's the playoffs, so I just spit on it and go," Battier said.

On the Jazz side, Williams has struggled with a bruised gluteal muscle, and one wonders if that contributed to his relatively tame performance (13 points, six assists).

There are two days off between now and Game 6, so both teams should get a chance to heal.

But regardless of health, one big question remains: Can the Rockets win now that we've stopped writing them off?

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.