For as much reason as there was to be excited after the first half, there was cause for the same frustration as the game dwindled. The Rockets came out scorching last night in their season opener, determined to spoil the Lakers’ parade. The team moved the ball quickly off the boards, imposing a frantic pace, and putting the champs on their heels and out of their comfort zone. Guards Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks (of Everybody Hates Chris fame) looked intent on thrusting themselves into the debate as league’s best offensive backcourt, unconsciously netting almost 20 apiece in the first two frames, and second year man Chase Budinger chipped in with his usual share of highlights, looking as smooth as ever. Houston took a double digit lead into the break and all was well in our world until, as it has far too often during the Yao Ming era, everything completely fell apart.
The Rockets sputtered in the fourth, looking confused, the pace having been noticeably bogged down, and shots stopped falling. After a sterling first half, guard Kevin Martin retreated into his shell with the rest of his mates unable to compensate. Laker guards Steve Blake and Shannon Brown forgot who they were, pouring in what seemed like ten 3’s apiece, putting the game firmly out of reach. The Rockets made a valiant push off the efforts of Luis Scola–even taking the lead in the last minute–before finally succumbing. Aaron Brooks, in a horrifically overplayed rerun, missed a potentially game tying lay-in under the hoop, and that was all she wrote.
- You’re wondering about Yao: we’ll get there, in due time my friend. First, the implications of this game. It validated the sentiment that this team can run with the big boys. I feel more confident than ever, after last night’s performance, that this is one of the best teams in the Western Conference, when healthy. The Rockets, with their embarrassingly impressive depth are really tailor-made for the brutal 82-game marathon. I see the team being able to wear opponents out with waves of effort and talent. They’ll defend, rebound, push the ball, and drain 3’s in transition. In the half-court, they’ll look to Yao or set up through Brad Miller. This is a formula that will work and can net 50 wins – there’s really no doubt.
- The concern of course, as it has been, is that this team freezes when the pressure mounts. When the game was first getting out of reach, the Rockets could not score, validating my fears regarding their ceiling. While they did mount a furious comeback off the strength of some Scola trickery, I do not see this changing without some personnel upgrade.
- All in all, the Rockets lost by just two without the man who I called their most impactful player last season (Lowry) to the defending champs, on the road. There’s a lot to feel good about there, even if it may take tonight to cleanse the bitter taste.
- Yao – I was very impressed by the giant. While he scored just nine points, he changed the dynamic of this team (from last year) and that’s all he really needs to do. Gone are the days when Yao should be needed to score 20 for the team to have a chance; he just needs to be a presence. In a recent interview, I was asked of the expectations on Yao. My reply was that he simply needs to ‘be big.’ That’s all he needs to do. Fill the middle and be a presence. To that end, last night was a success. “The large man” (copyright Jacob Mustafa, Red94) challenged shots and took up space defensively while serving as an ‘eye of the storm’ at the other end, giving the team a reference point they hadn’t had last season through which to revolve their offense. Very promising outing from Yao and I left feeling very confident about his new role and his ability to fit in with this cast. He also didn’t fall down any times, by my count.
- One eyebrow raising development pertained to the 24-minute imposition. With the game still within reach, and the limit dangerously nearing, Adelman looked to have no intention of removing the giant. Had Yao not fouled out seconds later, I’m not completely sure he would have been pulled. This is something we’ll need to watch.
- We saw last night why Brad Miller was signed at such a generous amount – he’s a huge part of this team. Not only does he bring size in Yao’s absence, but he’s the quarterback of the offense when on the floor. The added dimension alone brought by Miller will pay huge dividends.
- Jordan Hill and Jared Jeffries did not see time so that will be another storyline to monitor tonight, with Yao not in action. My guess is that what you saw last night was the regular rotation with Yao, and that Hill will get the start on the second game of back-to-backs, with Miller in relief. Jeffries will play over Hill in other times. Again, we see why Miller was paid so handsomely – we falsely assumed that Hill would be a major part of this rotation this year, but we saw last night that that probably isn’t the case. You can’t trust young big men in gunfights, I suppose.
- My final thought is on Luis Scola who scored 18 points and grabbed 16 rebounds: he’s probably for real. By the manner in which he awkwardly does it, we tend to forget, or I at least, the type of numbers he’s put up in his career in Carl Landry’s absence (either to trade or injury). Looking at his production, Scola is flat out one of the best rebounders in basketball, and always a threat to snare 20. It’s unreal, with his lack of vertical and overall goofiness. Now, is he an elite power forward? No, because his points come as the garbage variety, and he’s not a guy to whom you can throw the ball and ask to work. But in the next tier, he’s as good as any, and certainly worth his pricetag.