JCF: Over the course of the last two weeks, you guys have played five playoff-caliber teams. The end result: Four losses, all by pretty sizeable margins. Considering that’s the quality of competition you’re going to be facing come playoff times, does this worry you at all or do you not lose much sleep over it?
DM: It’s concerning. You want to win every game. I think big picture, though, we feel like we’ve competed hard in most of those games and come up short. But we feel there are adjustments we can make to improve our play the next time.
JCF: What about the fact that you guys don’t have that second go-to scorer with Yao out? Everybody else in the Western playoff picture features—at the very least--two big scoring threats. Can you survive in the postseason at such a disadvantage?
DM: We definitely feel like we can compete in any seven game series with any of the Western teams. It’s a harder climb with Yao out, but we’re not conceding any seven game series. Coach Adelman’s offense is predicated on moving the ball and not running it through one guy, anyway. So if any team can survive it, we feel like we’re set up to handle it. And we’re not going to create any reasons in our minds for why we can’t compete.
JCF: Speaking of Yao, how often do you catch yourself thinking, “Man, what if he hadn’t gotten hurt?” Or do you not even allow yourself to go down that road?
DM: I think it’s human nature. When Tracy was out, we missed him the whole game, but the noticeable times were late in the game when it’s hard to get the ball in the post. Not having Tracy as a go-to guy was a big problem. That’s when we missed him the most. And with Yao out, there are certain teams where it makes it extremely difficult to beat them without a post presence and without him on the defensive end. When Dikembe’s out of the game, our interior defense has been much worse than it was when we had Yao, obviously. So teams like the Spurs, especially, become more difficult without Yao.
JCF: With that in mind, are you hoping to avoid teams like San Antonio and Phoenix, who have that inside presence, in the first round?
DM: Well, I think there are definitely better and worse match-ups in the playoffs, but since you have absolutely no control of it short of a Clippers-Denver situation from a few years ago—where a team could lose and set up who they wanted to play; and I think the league focuses on that pretty heavily now —short of that, we just gotta win as many games as we can and play who we line up against. Even if we had a match-up we wanted, we couldn’t engineer it.
JCF: Well, I know you won’t want to touch this question, but I’ll go ahead and ask it anyway: What might be a match-up you’d want?
DM: Well, I am on record as saying I want to play the Celtics in the Finals, so I’ll go with that.
JCF: Good answer. So going back to Yao for a minute, have you spoken to him lately? How is his rehab going?
DM: Rehab’s going great. There’s not a lot he can do right now, unfortunately. He’s in the early, light stages of rehab. So he’s in good spirits, but he wishes he could be doing more basketball-wise. That’s created a bit of a void that he’s feeling and everyone’s feeling. But Carroll Dawson’s been working with him on tape work. He’s been coming in and meeting with the players to talk about the teams we’re facing. Everything is going smoothly, medically. I think, mentally, it’s also going smooth, but it’s starting to get harder on him as the days and weeks go on here, and he’s such a competitor that it’s hard for him not to be on the court.
JCF: It’s no secret that the last three years have been tough on the Rockets, injury-wise. Meanwhile, you look at a team like Phoenix, whose training staff is receiving a ton of credit for keeping guys like Steve Nash, Shaquille O’Neal, and Grant Hill healthy and on the court. Do you think they’re doing something different out there that you guys, and the rest of the league, can copy? Or do you think that issue might be a bit overblown?
DM: We study what every team’s doing, and every team is doing pretty much the same thing. I think it’s more the luck of the draw. But we turn over every rock to make sure that’s the case, and at this point we don’t see Phoenix doing anything different, approach-wise, than what we do.
JCF: So you think the fascination with the “Phoenix way” might be more of a media creation?
DM: I don’t know. I haven’t seen the media create it or not. Our medical staff talks to all the teams, not just Phoenix. And the Suns had Amare (Stoudemire) out for a year and a half, so they’ve obviously had their share of injuries.
JCF: Let’s talk a bit about your other superstar now. Obviously, the nature of the beast dictates that T-Mac is going to receive the lion’s share of the credit and blame depending upon how the team is doing. But Tracy just seems to have a knack for evoking such strong responses—both positive and negative--from people at the local and national level. He’s a very polarizing figure. What goes through your mind when you hear from those who question his heart and desire?
DM: It’s totally unfair. He comes to compete every night. It just so happens that we’re a team, especially with Yao out, that doesn’t have a player that the league markets heavily so he (McGrady) becomes the face of the franchise. But it’s a team sport, and we feel like the players around Tracy are very good players, and we win as a team and we lose as a team.
JCF: Do you feel like Tracy carries around that burden of never having been out of the first round? Is that something that weighs heavily upon him, almost to the extent that you wish he could just let it go and leave it behind?
DM: I think he does let it go. I don’t think it affects him at all. He doesn’t focus on it. He knows it’s a team sport. To me it is very much a media creation. There are hundreds of players in the league who haven’t advanced past the first round, so I’m not sure why Tracy gets singled out on that. Also, I think—because it is a team sport—you should look at the number of times someone didn’t get out of the first round when their team had home court, and I think Tracy’s only had that once (last year). To me, I think it’s a litmus test that the media’s created that we don’t focus on at all.
JCF: I saw a column recently which said that, earlier in the season when the team was struggling, you were worried that coach Adelman had lost his fire for coaching. Is that true, or was it something that was misconstrued or misinterpreted?
DM: Yeah, I saw that. That was paraphrased by [the writer]. What I had said was that during the down times Rick was a steady hand and steady captain of the ship, and I think I was a little more impatient. And his experience and winning track record brought a lot of confidence and the right approach to that situation, and that was proved out over time.
JCF: Looking forward, do you think it’s fair to say that this season will be considered a success if the team gets past the first round?
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DM: Well, we haven’t really limited ourselves. We always said we wanted home court in the playoffs, then we want to advance. That’s what we’re focused on. And until the season is over, whether you advance, how far you advance, who you played, how many games you won… I don’t think you can measure success of failure just on a simple measure.
JCF: Taking it a step further, how do you feel like this team stacks up against its competition next year; especially when you consider that the Western Conference doesn’t figure to get any easier. Los Angeles will have another year to integrate its new pieces, Portland gets Greg Oden… For the Rockets, does it just come down to good health?
DM: We’re more focused on this year. But we feel good about the future. All our players are in their prime pretty much. There are a few toward the tail end, but there are also quite a few who are on the early stages of entering their prime. We feel like we’ve got a good cap situation and we feel good about the future, but we’re more focused on seeing what we can do this season.
- Jason Friedman