Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Last night, the Rockets grabbed an early lead and never looked back, thanks in large part to a balanced offensive effort, crisp ball movement, inspired play by a cast of no-names off the bench, and superior defense. Sprinkle in a sublimely efficient effort from Tracy McGrady (29 points on 13-26 shooting to go along with 5 boards and 5 assists) and it’s no surprise Houston cruised to a ho-hum 26 point victory over its latest victim.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. This was the act that played to rave reviews inside Toyota Center and other select venues across the country throughout all of February and most of March. Yes, for one more glorious night, Houston’s favorite off-Broadway performers returned as the Rockets recaptured the mojo of 22 in a row. And just like old times, it brought the house down.
So the morning after the Rockets’ 95-69 Game Five victory over Utah, Houstonians everywhere want to know: Will there be an encore, or was this simply a one time only reprise?
Of course, we won’t find out the answer until Friday night, when T-Mac and his fellow troubadours take their act into the bowels of Salt Lake City. They most certainly will not be welcomed with open arms. But the Rockets are hopeful that the show will go on.
“I’ve never been so excited going to Utah in my life,” said Chuck Hayes after the game. “I’m looking forward to it and we know they’re gonna come out pumped up. The crowd’s going to be loud and there will be extra speed in their step, but we’ll be ready.”
Added Shane Battier: “We’re going back to the lion’s den. The bad news is they’ve only lost five times this year, the good news is twice it’s been to us.”
Actually, the good news doesn’t end there. Ever since Rafer Alston returned to the troupe for Game Three, the Rockets have displayed the sort of offensive balance necessary to compete with Utah. Yes, T-Mac remains the headliner, but Skip’s presence means McGrady doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of carrying this ensemble performance as if it were a one-man show.
Says McGrady: “That’s what makes us a pretty good ball team; moving the ball, having energy, scrambling for lose balls, rebounding, getting after it on the defensive end, the energy guys coming in to do their job. Everybody has a role on this team and if everybody sticks to their roles, we’re a pretty good ball club and I think we showed that tonight.
“Rafer is a big help for us. He’s knocking down the long shot. He’s a guy that controls the tempo for us, gets us in our sets, and is a great floor general for our team. In the fourth quarter, I’m able to play off the ball and have Rafer initiate our offense. We’re a lot [more] confident, and I’m more comfortable on the ball court with him.”
That much is obvious. It’s certainly no coincidence that the Rockets are 2-1 in the three games they’ve played since Rafer’s return. But there’s more to it than that, of course. After days of complaining about Utah’s football-level physicality, the Rockets decided to reciprocate. The aesthetic wasn’t attractive—any questions as to why Game Five was relegated to NBA-TV were quickly quashed after suffering through the game’s painful first few minutes—but the end result certainly made up for it.
“You have to play that way,” said Battier. “Because if you’re passive against this team, they put you in the front row and you’re playing from behind. That’s the only way to beat this team, you’ve gotta match their physical play and play tough.”
So strap on your helmets and get ready for more of the same Friday night. Utah will undoubtedly play better upon returning to the friendly (for them, at least) confines of Energy Solutions Arena. The Jazz surely can’t play much worse than they did in Game Five. As for the Rockets? Their backs are still against the wall, which can only bode well for a team that seemingly feeds off adversity.
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It should add up to another two and a half hours of compelling, rough and tumble and, at times, brutally violent, theater. When these two teams go at it, the end result is certainly more Tarantino than Disney. But Houston’s hoop fans probably don’t care as long as Game Six’s “R” rating eventually stands for “Rockets;” allowing the longest-running show of the season to come back to Toyota Center for (at least) one more return engagement.
The way this Rockets season has unfolded—and the way the last one ended—another Game Seven seems only fitting. Can they make it happen?
There’s only one thing we know for sure at this point: It’s not just on T-Mac anymore. It’s on the team.
And you get the feeling the Rockets wouldn’t have it any other way. - Jason Friedman