Admit it. A few minutes past 10 p.m. CST, you were positively horrified. For two hours, you had watched the Rockets give a nearly flawless performance on the road against the match-up nightmare known as the Phoenix Suns. They played defense. They stroked the three. Yao dominated. And yet, come crunch time, you expected the worst. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re not alone.
This was the kind of game programmed to prey upon the fears of everyone wearing Rocket red. Houston’s lead had been whittled to two. The crisp ball movement of the previous three-and-a-half quarters had been replaced by a stagnant offense which too often settled for jumpers. Yao—in the midst of playing a team-high 40 minutes against the run and gun Suns—was clearly exhausted. You didn’t need Miss Cleo to tell you how this was going to end. The Ghost of Game 7—and all the crunch time questions it brings with it—was back. And then something amazing happened.
Steve Francis rode to the rescue.
Rest assured, Yao Ming was the story of this game. His ability to overcome years of Phoenix frustration by finally keeping pace and dominating down low keyed the victory. But Steve Francis was the hero.
He was the one who eschewed the outside jumper in the final minute, instead deciding to take it to the hole with reckless abandon. And he was the one whose steal on the other end helped seal the victory.
No doubt the Francis bandwagon is bursting at the seams today and doing its fair share of gloating. But this is not the time for “I told you so.” After all, it’s only one game. The question never was: Can Stevie help the team win? Vastly more significant is: Can Stevie help the team win in May and June?
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No matter the answer, it will be fascinating to watch this story unfold throughout the season. Right now, Francis is on his best behavior. He’s playing under control and doing everything he can to get his teammates involved. The over-dribbling, killer turnovers and sketchy shot-selection of days gone by are a thing of the past. For now.
And that’s the key. Francis is like that loveable kid in your class with a knack for saying or doing the wrong things at the wrong time. As much as you like the guy, you can’t stop wondering what he could accomplish if he just buckled down and applied himself. Sometimes, he gets kicked out of class, after which he always comes back contrite and respectful. But the moment he starts feeling comfortable again, the shenanigans return. So you have to ask yourself: Will this time be any different?
The thing is, the Rockets don’t need Stevie to be the Franchise of old. They’d happily settle for Manu Ginobili-Lite; someone who can come off the bench, fill-up the stat sheet, and provide a spark with his energy, offense and derring-do. That’s exactly what Francis has done the last two games. Both resulted in Rockets wins.
So know this: The class is watching you, Stevie. They’re also pulling for you. What will you do next? - Jason Friedman