Rockets-Spurs from Press Row: Now with 75 Percent Less Jumping to Conclusions!

“The great thing about this league is the gross generalizations made after a big win or a big loss.” - Shane Battier, immediately following the Rockets 89-81 win over San Antonio

Battier’s quote pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Just one night after sports writers and fans (you know who you are) seemed ready to wave the white flag following a disappointing loss in Dallas, the Rockets bounced back in a big way by beating the defending champs. Presumably, those same skeptics are busy today making plans for a ticker tape parade next June. Did I mention the Rockets are just five games into the season?

Look, I get it. In this age of around-the-clock news, ubiquitous fan blogs, and message boards, everything is going to be analyzed to death on a daily basis. And with that comes an inherent need for—as Battier puts is—“gross generalizations.” Barring the destruction of Al Gore’s greatest invention, it’s not going away. But can we at least tone it down just a titch until Thanksgiving? That’s all I ask. Oh, and no more “We want Steve” chants while the Rockets are busy winning 80 percent of their games. Thanks.

So in an effort to abide by my own demands, I’ll keep the ranting to a minimum today. Instead, let’s break down the Rockets big win “Good, Bad and Ugly” style.

The Good

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Red-hot start: One week into the season, Houston has played four playoff teams (including the defending champs) and three games on the road. The Rockets’ record: 4-1. When you consider this club is still in its embryonic stage with regards to Rick Adelman’s system, that mark is a pretty impressive achievement. Says Battier: “We wanted to get off to a good start. And once we settle into the rhythm of the season, it’s nice to have a couple game cushion over .500.”

The only downside: While the Rockets have given themselves a nice cushion over the .500 mark, they haven’t been able to put any sort of distance between themselves and their Southwest division foes. I said it in my abbreviated NBA preview column and I’ll say it again: This division is sending four teams to the playoffs this year. The only team struggling out of the gate is Memphis and I fully expect the Grizzlies to end up around .500 this season. Considering the ridiculous degree of difficulty, I feel like this year’s Southwest division champ should win some sort of special award. A first-round bye, perhaps? How much would the Rockets love that???

Bonzi bounces back: This is a no-brainer, of course. Houston owned the boards last night, and Bonzi Wells was a huge part of that. Watching the game, you would have thought the Spurs were the team playing a back-to-back. Wells was simply dominant on the backboards, conjuring images of his amazing first-round playoff series against San Antonio two years ago, back when Bonzi was a Sacramento King.

“Bonzi was awesome tonight,” said Battier. “He was really down on himself [Monday] night. I think he felt he let the team down with his play and he really bounced back.”

Wells was especially effective on the offensive glass. His seven boards on that end were topped only by…

Yao Ming: Wow. 28 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks and a sterling effort in crunch time. Now that’s an MVP-worthy performance. Even more encouraging, Yao is looking increasingly comfortable making plays out of the high post. He made some beautiful passes to cutting teammates for lay-ups last night. You don’t want to see him live 15 feet from the basket on a consistent basis, but it’s good to see him utilize his play-making skills every once in awhile. It just gives opponents one more wrinkle to agonize over.

Three-point differential: Perhaps the least talked about aspect of the Rockets’ win. Houston shot 9-21 from behind the arc and limited the Spurs to a mere 3 for 8. So not only did the Rockets stroke it at a very high clip, they also defended the three-point line exceedingly well. Keep in mind, this sort of differential is something San Antonio has excelled at in the past, and it was a huge part of their championship run a year ago.

“It was the first game we shot decent from the three-point line,” says Battier. “When they go small, they’re really effective with Parker and Ginobili penetrating and kicking it out for threes. So to beat these guys, you really have to stay mentally focused because if you let up for a second, they’re right back in the game. That’s why they’re the world champions.”

These guys actually like each other: There was a great sequence of events in the second half that really hammered this point home: On one trip down the floor, Battier and Rafer Alston failed to connect on a pass, resulting in the ball flying out of bounds for a turnover. Next time down the floor, they corrected the error, Battier nailed a trey, the fans went crazy, San Antonio called timeout, and Battier put Alston in a playful headlock on their way to the bench.

“This is an imperfect game,” says Battier. “There are a lot of ups and downs, a lot of peaks and valleys to the season, and it’s good to go through it with a group of guys you want to go to battle with. You’re gonna have times when you want to wring each other’s necks, and there are going to be times when you want to hug each other. But that cohesion—if you can develop it—only serves you well in the playoffs.”

Other notables: Dikembe Mutombo and Luis Scola are constantly up and out of their seats cheering on their teammates as if they were part of a college club. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the comedy gold moment of the night: Ming and Mutombo chest-bumping after Deke’s stunning first quarter slam. Somebody, please get this on youtube, STAT.

All in all, just a great night for the Rockets. But it wasn’t perfect, of course. So let’s take a look at…

The Bad

Dominating everywhere but the scoreboard: If I were to play Debbie Downer for a moment, here’s what I’d say: The Rockets dominated the boards and the three-point line. Yao Ming and Bonzi Wells were amazing. Tim Duncan was in foul trouble and had about as poor a night as you’ll ever see from him. Houston had home court advantage. And yet, the Rockets only won by eight, and the game wasn’t put away until Battier drilled a three-pointer with little more than one minute to go. Shouldn’t Houston have won this game by 20?

Hey, cut ‘em a little slack. They were playing the world champs, after all. And there was one very good reason why this game stayed close until the final minutes…

The Ugly

Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers: No surprise here. If you didn’t know the Rockets have a problem holding on to the ball, you haven’t been paying attention the last couple years. It’s a major issue, especially for Yao (he had six more last night, brining his average to 4 per game for the season). The big man just gives the ball away too often. To be sure, some of it can be attributed to the new system. And any player who handles the rock as much as Yao does is going to commit his share of turnovers (just ask Steve Nash, who’s always one of the league-leaders in turnovers despite his wizardry with the basketball). But it’s something that has to be resolved if the Rockets are going to finally make some noise next summer. Not surprisingly, Battier is preaching patience:

“It’s gonna take a while. It’s really going to [take until] the All-Star break. There will be things we need to shore up. So there are no grand illusions that we’ll be able to fix it soon, it just takes time and repetition.”

But hold on a second, Shane. If we give you guys until the All-Star break, that means we can’t jump to grand, sweeping conclusions at the end of every game! Damn, those Duke guys. They’re always so smart and eager to spoil our fun.

Maybe next week I’ll talk to someone else. Or perhaps it’s time to slow down, take a deep breath, and patiently watch while the season unfolds.

Nah. -- Jason Friedman

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