What a season. Despite missing Yao Ming for 27 games (and T-Mac for 16), the Houston Rockets somehow managed to compile 55 victories, a 22-game winning streak, and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Place those accomplishments within the framework of the brutally competitive Western Conference, and they’re perhaps doubly impressive. But for now, they belong in the rearview mirror because the Rockets arch-nemeses from Utah are rapidly approaching.
With that in mind, it seemed like the perfect time to track down Rockets GM Daryl Morey to get his thoughts on the team’s upcoming showdown with the Jazz. There was just one minor problem: Morey was doing playoff prep work in his office until 3:30 AM Wednesday night / Thursday morning. So if the parties involved seem a little ragged and weary during the course of the conversation, we simply ask that you keep the ridiculously late hour in mind. Thanks.
JCF: Was there a small part of you that was secretly hoping for another shot at Utah in the playoffs?
DM: No, we just wanted home court. So there’s no Jazz revenge factor, at least for me.
JCF: When you look at this match-up, there are two big things that stand out: Utah’s size and the Deron Williams factor. How on earth do you deal with him, especially with Rafer out for at least the first two games?
DM: Yeah, Deron’s good at everything, so you try and minimize the damage. [The Jazz are] most effective when he’s passing the ball to cutters, and passing the ball to spot-up shooters like Okur, so what you want to do is get Deron going for his own offense. He’s still effective, but that’s usually the least bad of the options. JCF: And I assume defending him has to be more of a team effort, since there’s just no way Bobby Jackson or Aaron Brooks can handle Williams one-on-one?
DM: No one can handle him one-on-one, but your best choice may be to still guard him one-on-one. You go back to the days of when Houston beat Phoenix in the ‘90s. Rudy chose to let Kevin Johnson be the guy who goes nuts and basically guarded everybody else, and [that strategy] helped win the series. So you can’t stop everything. You’re always just trying to move them into the offense that is the least effective.
JCF: I promise I’m not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but are you concerned at all that when you look at the last month of the season you guys did very well in the games you were theoretically supposed to win, but displayed a tendency to lose by significant margins when stepping up in class against playoff-caliber competition?
DM: With Yao out, we won at Dallas and at New Orleans, and we also just beat Phoenix at home last week. I’m sure I’m forgetting some others. There are a lot of good wins in there. You look at most of the top Western teams and they’re rolling at .500 or a little less against the top teams, and then beating up on the teams they need to beat.
JCF: One of the most amazing things about this team, to me anyway, is that you guys just put the finishing touches on a 55-win season, yet you’re headed to the playoffs counting on significant contributions from three rookies. I mean, that’s just not the typical formula for NBA success.
DM: Yeah, well, you know, they’re the best options. If your choice is a better rookie or a not as good veteran, go with the better player. So we’re going to go with the best option we’ve got. JCF: How proud of this group are you? This team has dealt with so much. It’s been thrown so many curve balls, yet they’ve just gone about their business and gotten the job done. I mean, 55 wins is a fantastic achievement anytime, but when placed within the context of this year’s uber-competitive Western Conference, it’s downright amazing what this team has accomplished.
DM: Yeah, we’re really, really happy. We haven’t accomplished our goals, but we accomplished our regular season goal, though, which was getting home court. And to do that with the injuries, the rookies, all the new players, and the coaching transition--I think it’s a real testament to our players and coach Adelman. JCF: What’s your response to the all the chatter that you guys are the team everyone wants to play in the first round?
DM: I’ve seen it. I think the analysis doesn’t go past Yao being out. So it’s pretty simplistic. But if you dig deeper you see that we’ve played extremely well without Yao, and there’s no question we can win games against the top teams with Yao out. If Yao were with us, we would obviously be better off, but we also think for sure we can still advance; especially with home court, which is why we’re thrilled to have it. It does add some pressure playing Utah, because you almost have to hold serve and win all your home games.
JCF: Are you nervous at all, or just exhausted at this point?
DM: (laughs) Yeah, there’s no time to be nervous. We thought we were going to be playing Utah, so we’ve been preparing for them for a while but, yeah, there’s just too much to do to be nervous.
JCF: How about some quick analysis of the other series taking place in the Western Conference?
DM: Lakers-Denver: I think that’s exciting for the fans with all the stars. I think Denver’s got an uphill battle because the Lakers have played so well and Kobe’s playing so well. Without home court, it’s going to be tough for Denver.
New Orleans-Dallas: Very interesting. New Orleans has for sure been the better team all year, so it’ll be interesting to see how they translate that into the playoffs; especially since this is the first year in the postseason with this core that (Hornet’s GM) Jeff Bower’s put together over the last few years. That’s gonna be a great series.
San Antonio-Phoenix: You get to see how the [Shaq] trade worked out. That’s the big reason they did the trade, and now we get to see how it works. So that’s going to be fascinating.
Then I think our games are exciting for us. It’s two really veteran coaches, and two smart-playing teams facing off. Neither team have a lot of traditional star power, but I think all the pure basketball fans are going to be watching our games because both teams play with really good execution and play basketball the quote-unquote right way; they’re both very team-oriented. JCF: It’s interesting you say that you think all the real basketball fans will be watching your series. I guess that means the national networks don’t think there are too many real basketball fans out there, since I assume you guys aren’t going to be seeing too many prime time placements.
DM: I haven’t seen the schedule yet but, yeah, we’ll probably be playing on satellite TV…
JCF: At like 2 o’clock in the morning…
DM: (laughs) Yeah, probably something like that.
JCF: And I assume Boston is the pick out East?
DM: Oh yeah, they’re gonna make the Finals for sure.
JCF: Well congrats on a tremendous regular season and best of luck in the playoffs. And get some sleep. You’re gonna need it.
- Jason Friedman