Blazers/Rockets Game 6 Recap
The Rockets scratch the seven year itch by landing in Ron’s World.
It’s time for the crucifixion of Yao Ming to come to an end. The Toyota Center is officially clear of evil spirits, and after six frustrating first round exits, the Houston Rockets have exorcised their demons.
The Rockets won at home 92-76 with an energy that hadn’t been seen out of them since Game 1. The Rockets made their own version of Hustle and Flow, rocking to 9 steals, giving up only 8 turnovers and winning the battle on the glass.
Shane Battier said, “We came out with a great focus. We knew we could defend this team coming into the series, but we fouled them unnecessarily and put them on the line. We knew if we could stop doing that, we could defend them as a team.”
Houston was backed by a home crowd that, as a native Houstonian, was as wild as I’ve seen them in years. Many of the Rockets fans felt that home court was the edge Houston needed. Rockets fans Savannah Trevino, Mary and Troy O’Neill even broke down the keys to the game.
Troy O’Neil, a Rockets fan since he was a child, said, “I think they’ll win with home court in Game 6 and then go on to face the Lakers. They just need to get rebounds, make sure Yao gets the ball without making bad passes and focus on defense. Defense wins games.” It looks like Rick Adelman took notes.
But tonight was the Ron Artest show. Artest showed his offensive repertoire, in spite of a 3-for-11 3-point mark, on way to a season high 27 points. On defense, Artest showed the hustle and focus that made him a former Defensive Player of the Year.
When I asked Ron whether getting the monkey off their back qualifies this season a success, he emphatically replied, “No! No. I told the fans, that’s what I had to tell them immediately, to get that out of your head. When you start thinking like that, you get a lot of people thinking like that. When you get a lot of people around you with negative energy, you think negative. You get a lot of positivity and you start thinking positive. If you get fans that want to win big, then it puts the pressure on L.A. That’s what you want to do. Tonight they wanted us to win the game. They shouldn’t just be happy with this. Just move on and want us to win more. Don’t be happy with this.”
The Rockets gambled this season by taking on Ron and it has paid off. He’s brought a toughness that was lacking. He’s also incredibly misunderstood. In the media, we tend to focus on the negative, but here’s an example of who Ron really is and what his attitude has brought to Houston. After the game, he grabbed the microphone and asked the Houston fans to applaud the Blazers for a great series.
“I was just telling the fans to give Portland, it wasn’t an easy series and they were singing Na, Na, Na, Na Goodbye. I just wanted them to show some respect and the fans gave them a round of applause. I thought it was important because it wasn’t easy. They [Portland] got us ready for this next series. The fans were so happy to get out of the first round. I’m just, I’m not happy to get out of the first round. That’s not how it goes here. That’s not L.A.’s goal. It’s not Boston’s goal. That is not Cleveland’s goal and it’s not our goal.”
It looked like Von Wafer would miss the game with back spasms, but he toughed it out. His impact won’t show up on the stat sheet, but it was huge for the Rockets’ morale.
Once the game started, it felt like we were watching the 2009 National Rugby Association Playoffs, as the officials let the teams pretty much do whatever they wanted in the first half. Somebody needs to talk to the officials about visiting the rulebooks. On both ends of the court, they looked inept. To give you a taste of what I mean, on back-to-back plays Joel Przybilla had a goaltending violation, then Luis Scola returned the favor. Neither was called. I guess if you’re going to call a lousy game, it’s good to do it both ways, right?
Give credit to the Rockets for at least trying to get Yao the ball early, reversing plays when Pryzbilla fronted him. Part of the Rockets’ issue with Yao’s touches has been that they’re bringing the double team to Yao. When they isolate him and move to the far side, it allows Yao more space to work. He helped the cause by hitting perimeter shots, even going to the Shanghai Shake.
Brandon Roy got most of the run this series, but Aldridge is going to be great very soon as well. He scored 25 points and broke down the defense with his mid-range touch. His confidence grew with every game this series.
Before the game, Aldridge told me, “I’ve done a better job of reading how they’re playing me. The first game they brought Yao. In the third game, they brought Battier across. So now I’ve kind of seen everything they can do, so I have to continue to do a good job of reading them.”
His game was stunted somewhat tonight by young mistakes. Aldridge has to learn not to fall for the old Reggie Miller pump fake. The 4 fouls he got by 5:46 in the 3rd took him out of his game, but he was wrecking Houston when he was on the court.
By the way, did anybody else think Houston’s run was over when Yao took a spill and grabbed his leg with 36.4 to go in the 1st? Just checking.
Portland just couldn’t get much going tonight. Like most of the series, the Blazers’ supporting cast failed them. If Steve Blake is driving to the basket, you know you’re behind. Blake has proven he can succeed in the NBA, but that’s just not playing to Portland’s strength. This has been Tell Us Something We Don’t Know 101. I’ll be filling in for John Madden next season.
Yao was a beast defensively, getting two blocks, one on a fast break where he caught Steve Blake from behind for a swat. Somewhere, Hakeen Olajuwon is smiling. Yao took charge by calling out defensive assignments and plays on offense tonight. At one point in the 3rd, he yelled at Shane Battier and Aaron Brooks to get back on D after he stopped Rudy Fernandez from a breakaway basket. That’s the leadership the Rockets have needed.
The Rockets decided to double team Brandon Roy and it stopped him … for a while. The guy is just a baller. He had a bad first half and still got 16. All you need to know about Roy’s game can be summed up by Artest’s assessment of him.
“Brandon was the first player since I was in the NBA to give me 40. Any time I guard a guy, whether it’s my fault or my teammate’s fault, I always take the blame,” said Artest. “I’ve held guys to 0 and 6 points so when he got 40 I was amazed. I was like, ‘Wow, this guy gave me 40. He totally has no respect for me. I was happy for him. I was like, ‘Don’t you know what you just did?’ I was proud of him.
But it he as good at Kobe status? Artest thinks he still has room to grow.
He said, “I think he’s up there. He’s very poised. He has to get in better shape to play defense. I mean Kobe just started playing defense the last couple of years. He wasn’t always a great defender. He just started picking it up the last 2 or 3 years. I guess that’s the next step for Brandon. That’s going to make him a total player.”
The series was a mixed bag for Roy personally, who played well beyond his years.
“This is a great experience for us,” said Roy. “All our guys are happy that we had a great season, but they have a bad taste in their mouth because you felt like we could have played better this series.”
You have to feel for Greg Oden. He’s had the misfortune of facing arguably the most talented offensive center in the game, and tonight it was too much for him.
There was no second half letdown from Houston this time, which had been the theme of their season so far. When the Blazers cut the lead down to 13 with less than 8 minutes to go in the 4th, many of the writers, myself included, started muttering. But Von Wafer nailed a jumper right after the crowd rose to their feet, sensing the shift in momentum. Portland never got closer after that. Houston fans have the reputation for being fair-weather. Tonight they lifted Houston.
More evidence of that came when Artest got mobbed by fans as he flew into the seats for a save with 1:40 left. The play was the focus for many reason in the postgame discussion.
“That was fun,” Artest said. “I’ve never done that before. That was fun. I just hustled and they all jumped over me. That was fun.”
Asked again about it later in the night, Ron proved that he can match Eddie Murphy’s Raw in terms of humor.
“Well I’ve been in the stands before,” Artest joked, referring to his 2004 altercation in Detroit. You may have heard of it once or twice.
Yao interjected, “But this time it was home court.”
Artest laughed and said, “This time it was home court. I wanted to soak it in so I had to sit down. Actually a guy offered me some beer. When he did that, I said, ‘You know what? I am going to sit down and enjoy this. You’re not throwing it at me.’ I was going to take a sip but there were too many cameras.”
Later, he got real about what his effort meant, saying, “It showed that we were still playing for something. You get out of the first round or know you’re about to, but it showed the young fellas that the way we finished that game is how we need to start. It can be a lot of fun when we get to L.A.”
Portland lost the series, but they’re going to be sporting title rings very soon. They actually overachieved this season, a notion Aldridge expanded on.
“It’s a tough loss but we have a young team, a young nucleus,” said Aldrige. “We had a great year. Nobody even picked us to make the Playoffs and to be in the position we’re in. That’s a positive. Now we’ve been here and know what it’s like. We’ll come back stronger next year.”
Travis Outlaw focused on the positives after the loss as well, stating, “I’m very happy with all my teammates and how they came out and performed. We didn’t let losses get us down. It was a good season for us. It’s been a while since we were in the Playoffs. To push this to a sixth game, I feel like we accomplished a lot.”
For Battier, the win said a lot about the team and shut the naysayers’ mouths.
He said, “This sums up our team tonight. We have great fortitude. After Game 5, a lot of people counted us out and said. “Portland had all the momentum, we can’t win on our home court, we can’t get out of the first round.” But we’ve been counted out so many times this year that it didn’t phase us.”
In a candid moment, Yao said the win was “the biggest win in his NBA career” and revealed how hard the Playoff losing streak has been for him, exhaling heavily into the microphone. Artest followed with an exaggerated exhalation of his own to lighten the mood. Yao then confessed, “I did feel the pressure. I can give you an example. Usually I take a nap, but today I woke up an hour and a half earlier than I wake up. I think about those games and those technical problems even when I’m asleep. Seriously.”
The chemistry the Rockets built in spite of the changes that have come throughout the season is what ended up getting this team to the second round. Like the Cleveland Cavaliers, they’re a tight-knit group, evidenced by their affection for Dikembe Mutombo.
Artest said, “When we had Deke the first game, we won by a lot of points. Then he went down and I was about to cry. I was like, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to win. I don’t know how we’re going to win without Deke.’ Then he came before the game to give us some confidence. I was just so happy to see him there. Hopefully he can come out to L.A., I don’t know if he can with his injury, but it meant a lot to me and this team.”
Yao was thrilled that Deke was at the game Thursday, saying, ““I am very happy that Dikembe could come today into the locker room and enjoy this with us. That’s the locker room we have. I felt like we played with full confidence.”
With 2:39 to go in the 4th, the “Beat L.A.” chants started. Be careful what you wish for, Houston. There will be one name on everyone’s lips, the one that the Rockets talked about after the game.
“Kobe. Kobe. You have to be ready,” said Aaron Brooks. “This is what he lives for. He wants another title. It’s our job to stop him.”
“In my book, he’s [Kobe Bryant] the MVP,” Battier said. “He’s had a heck of a year. This is his best chance for a championship, so he is going to come at me and Ron.”
The buzz is already building for the Kobe-Artest match-up, and Ron is ready for it.
“I expect him to try to kill me and I know he expects the same thing. After that we will see what happens.”
The Rockets have proven their critics wrong, salvaging a season that started out as confusing as T.I.’s lyrics to your granddad. They’ve already climbed a huge hill. Now they have chance to be king for a day, maybe a season, if they can knock off King Kobe and his royal purple clad knights. Let the battle begin.