It should have been so much easier.
It could have been disastrous.
The Rockets 19-point lead was gone, leaving the club’s seven game winning streak—and all the accompanying good vibes—perilously perched on the brink of oblivion. This team, so convincing in its resolve to not just bury, but build off its monumental collapses of the past, sure seemed intent on using the fourth quarter to dig up the rotting corpse of the Philadelphia disaster.
Then Steve Novak buried The Shot. And nothing else mattered anymore.
It’s impossible to imagine a more appropriate ending to Houston’s heart-stopping 89-87 win over Sacramento Wednesday night. The build-up to Novak’s miracle moment certainly wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. When Tracy McGrady momentarily lost control of the ball at the start of the play, the Toyota Center practically echoed with the crazed keyboard strokes of countless T-Mac haters eager to unleash another round of vitriol toward their favorite target and his supposed inability to come through in the clutch. But McGrady regained his composure, drove hard to the hole, and found Novak just in time. One sweet stroke from beyond the arc later, all the horror and disbelief borne of a deplorable fourth quarter were washed away in a Rocket-red tidal wave of euphoria.
“I just wanted to go to the basket,” said McGrady. “I knew once I got into the paint, everybody was gonna come in. I saw Novak right out the corner of my eyes, floating over on the perimeter, and he was out there naked and he knocked down the shot. I saw it before it even developed. I saw his man [Brad Miller] inching in a little bit, and that’s why I went the way I went—to draw all those guys in and sure enough he was open.”
In the locker room after the game, T-Mac serenaded Novak with a chant of, “Hero! Hero! Hero!” But at that moment, the second-year pro from Marquette had much more important matters on his mind. Namely, he simply wanted a T-shirt to wear before subjecting the horde of cameras—and unsuspecting viewers—to the sight of his thin, wintery-white torso. When suitably attired for his close-up, Novak described how his big shot was really 16 months in the making.
“Coming in as a rookie, and playing with a guy like Tracy, obviously is an honor,” Novak said. “He said some things right away—what kind of shooter I was—right after training camp. That obviously made me feel very good and very confident, and him giving me the ball tonight is just Tracy showing that he means that.”
And just how much was riding on that shot?
“Everything,” said a relieved Rafer Alston. “That was a big shot. I tip my hat to players that can not play a whole night and then come in the game and can shoot it from that distance right away.”
Of course, the story didn’t end with Novak’s heroics. In the midst of the massive hysteria enveloping Toyota Center, Shane Battier knew the Rockets still had to contend with the not-so-small matter of stopping Sacramento in the final two seconds.
“At Duke, I was taught never to get fired up by those plays, because there’s still two seconds left,” explained Battier. “A lot can happen in two and a half seconds, and it’s a waste of energy if you’re jumping around. Obviously, our teammates were real excited, but I was already on the next play. I looked at Tracy and we both knew it was a great shot, but there’s a time to celebrate and there’s a time to take care of the last two and a half seconds.
“My next thought was, ‘Okay, what play are they going to run? Who’s gonna get the shot? What are our match-ups?’ And those are the sort of things that you have to get and then you move on to the next play.”
Armed with that mentality, the Rockets defense took care of the rest. Chuck Hayes not only prevented the previously unstoppable Ron Artest from touching the ball, he also made sure Brad Miller’s last second heave was properly contested. End result: Houston’s winning streak now stands at eight games and counting, and the team heads into the All-Star break having prevailed in 12 of its last 13 contests.
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Sure, the fourth quarter dramatics were unnecessary and agonizing. Said Battier: “It’s difficult to carry on a winning streak, because human nature promotes complacency after you have success… It takes a lot of mental strength to fight that complacency. We were telling each other, ‘Don’t get tired of losing. Don’t get tired of losing! Don’t take it for granted.’ And I think we did a little bit there in the fourth quarter.”
No, it definitely wasn’t pretty down the stretch. And T-Mac’s bobble on the final possession was harrowing to be sure. But none of that matters now. At the end of the day, Houston is still the hottest team in the Western Conference. And weeks from now, this game will be remembered for only two things:
A Rockets win.
And one memorable shot. – Jason Friedman