Game 26 Preview: Rockets vs. Blazers

Sometimes the games come so fast and furious that doing these is overwhelming, but I must admit I'm glad that we're playing again tonight!  I'm not even close to ready for the off-season yet!

A Look at the Rockets

A couple of summers ago I said one simple thing:  when all is said and done the Rockets are either going to find out that Yao Ming is a bust or they're going to find that they have to ease up on this T-Mac stuff and center the team around him.  Up until this year I half thought it was going to be Option A.  Yao has certainly made great strides in proving that wrong!  He's finally emerged from his shell and is averaging roughly 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 2+ blocks per game.  He's shooting 52% from the floor and 86% from the line.  He's finally learned to use that 7'6", 310 pound body and he's all but unstoppable.  OK, check that...he is unstoppable.  Only three times this season has he been held under 20, two of the three because of foul trouble and all of them Houston losses.  That said, the Rockets are only 3-3 when Yao takes more than 20 shots, 12-6 otherwise.  A perfect game for them is when he's taking 17-18 shots, hitting more than 50% of them, drawing 8 foul shots, and killing the opponent from the line.  When he's not involved in the offense or when he's the only option they suffer.  (Sounds rather like Zach, actually.)

Of course Yao still has one of the best wingmen in the league in Tracy McGrady.  A couple of caveats apply.  First he's under 42% from the field, under 29% from the arc, is drawing less than three shooting fouls per game, and is shooting sub-68% from the free throw line.  This is hardly vintage T-Mac.  Despite that, he's still takes the second most shots on the team (and is not that far from Yao).  Second, he's been out for the last four games with the same back spasms that sidelined him much of last year.  Nobody seems to know when he'll play again but since Portland is still considered one of those teams you should beat anyway, it's unlikely he'll be back tonight.

Into McGrady's spot steps Luther Head, a young, fine all-around player who surely doesn't need the same amount of shot's T-Mac does to make an impact.  He's having (for him) a nice little shooting and scoring season, but more importantly he'll do some of the other things--steals, rebounds, assists--that enhance the shooting guard spot.  Despite that he's only 6'3" and is subject to occasional abuse by taller, more athletic players.  Also in the backcourt is Rafer Alston who, despite a generally low shooting percentage, has never been shy about pulling the trigger.  And he's really started to jack them up with McGrady being gone.  He's the kind of point guard who usually has to score to be involved, but when his game is on he can deliver the rock with the best of them.  It's fortunate that the Rockets have Head to counter Alston's rampant shooting.  Even more fortunate was their acquisition of Shane Battier, who immediately adds +4 calmness points and +2 intelligence points to any team he's a part of.  Battier is one of those guys who plays 40 minutes despite modest stats because what he does doesn't show up in the stat column.  Much like Ime Udoka he's not going to beat you one-on-one but he'll be in the right place, he'll move the ball where it's supposed to go, and woe be unto you if you leave him open because you're paying attention to everyone else.  Other significant Rockets are Chuck Hayes and Juwon Howard, both of whom are useful because they'll take few shots and grab many rebounds.  Kirk Snyder is still trying to make a mark but can't shoot well enough to do it.  And of course let's not forget one Gawain [insert several words you don't say on this site here] D'Angelo "Bonzi" Wells.  Bonzi has been as lumpy as a school-lunch pork chop (and has had roughly the same shooting percentage) most of the season but is starting to round into shape enough to get some of the minutes vacated by McGrady.  His last two games have been among his most prolific of the season (9 and 12 points respectively) and we all remember what he does to teams that he used to belong to.  If he should pop out with another mega-blitz just remember he'll be back to the same old crap the game after.

Things I'd like to see:

  1.  Neither Przybilla, nor Magloire, nor LaFrentz, nor Aldridge are going to be able to make a dent in Yao.  He's simply going to obliterate all of them.  So...let him.  Make him become that single scorer and lock down on everyone else.  Even with the new acclaim it's still not a role he fills comfortably.  Hayes, Battier, and ancient backup center Dikembe Mutumbo are the only guys besides Yao who shoot above 45% and none of them are very prolific.  If Yao scores 30 but the rest of the team gets 55 combined you still have a decent chance of winning.
  2.  The best way to guard Yao is to make him work.  I hope that our centers beat him down the court to our offensive end every single play.  Put pressure on him to run and tire him out.  Heck...try a small lineup with Aldridge in there or Outlaw at the four just to put some pressure on.
  3.  Houston's game is predicated on making you miss and then it's one-and-done.  They play a controlled game, allowing the opponent relatively few shots, leading the league in field goal percentage against (42%) and then dominating on the boards.  There are a couple ways around this.  First, don't miss.  Move the ball around enough to get the best shot and make the most of every possession.  Second, if you're going to miss, try to put up so many shots it all equals out in the end.  Since we're unlikely to accomplish this via offensive rebounding with that freakin' mountain in there, the simplest solution is to up the tempo.  It's not our game but they're better at our game than we are.  Everyone pray to your Sergio bobble-heads tonight.
  4.  Our guards are going to have to hit their outside shots tonight.  The very best way to get to the Rockets is to put Yao in foul trouble and that entails driving into his body, but I don't think we have the kind of accomplished slashers to do that.  So we're going to have to rely on Jarrett Jack's stop-and-pop and on Martell, Ime, Juan, and Brandon (yay!) to hit those mid-range and longer jumpers to stretch the defense.
  5.  We haven't talked about Zach yet.  He kind of gets swallowed up in Yao's shadow and besides there's that pesky foot thing.  They say he's going to play anyway.  I don't mind if he's hobbled and can't score 25, but whatever he puts up he's got to hit...it's as simple as that.  If he shoots 8 for 12 we're probably OK.  If he shoots 8-for-20 all of those rebounds are going to go bye-bye and we're probably going to get smushed.
  6.  Forcing turnovers would make this game a lot easier.
This is kind of a mixed-bag game.  On the one hand the Rockets have lost three of their last four without T-Mac.  On the other hand, as we said, they do just about everything the Blazers do well...just a little bit better.  That's a tough matchup.  Also the Blazers have been in a groove the last week, but that groove will have been disrupted by the long layoff.  That often happens with young teams.  If there were ever a game that was primed for Portland to come out completely flat, this is it.  And if that happens, and if the Rockets build a big lead, I think we'll have a hard time coming back.  In short, most everything points to a loss tonight, and unless we come out with some freaky, young-energy, razzle-dazzle-run-you juju that's pretty much what I foresee.  Here's hoping I'm wrong...

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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