By Emry DowningHall
Andrei Kirilenko, for one night at least, was fully loaded and lickin’ shots in Utah. Faced with the assignment of slowing down a superstar dying to move onto the second round of the playoffs, Andrei Kirilenko had his mind on redemption.
The former all-star had the mohawk looking fresh and his limbs looking long as he filled up the box score with 14 points, 5 blocks, 3 steals, 5 boards, and 4 dimes. Even his stuffed stat-line can’t tell the story of how big Andrei was last night for the Jazz. His defense on McGrady forced T-Mac into 8 of 23 shooting and 1 of 6 from deep. All of this in a game you know McGrady was dying to have.
The Rockets were trying to claw their way back into the game in the fourth quarter, and Utah was in the midst of a scoring drought. Houston wasn’t shooting the ball well but was being rewarded by the whistle for their aggressive drives to the whole. On back to back plays AK-47 went from scapegoat to G.O.A.T. as he put together a series of defensive marvels that sealed Houstons fate.
Andrei plucked T-Mac on the sideline, without a trap, dove out of bounds and saved the ball. The result was 2 easy points for the Jazz. On the next trip down, McGrady went right at AK beating him on the left side with a fake right and quick first step. Andrei recovered and used his incredible length to swat Mac’s field goal attempt off the backboard and headed other way for Utah.
You knew it was going to take an inspired Jazz effort to fight off a Houston squad that smelled blood. The fans at the Delta Center were in this game from the jump and all the Mormon jokes aside, Utah fans seem to be very knowledgeable hoop heads.
Reggie Miller is in the booth tonight and word on the curb is that he is watching his wordplay after Lang got at him Wednesday.
I initially thought Mehmet Okur might be in for a long night after he picked up a charge after receiving a beautiful backdoor pass from Deron Williams. It wasn’t the fact that he picked up the foul (Battier) it was the zero effort he mounted to either avoid the contact, go through the contact, or look in the general direction of the referee once the call was made.
Perhaps his scuffle with Juwan Howard in the second quarter ignited a spark in the big Turk. After being taken down by Howard in what Okur perceived to be a dirty play, the big fella almost came up swinging. Howard was issued a technical for the incident which he plans on protesting. In any event, it may have been just what Dr. Sloan ordered for Okur.
By the time the second half had rolled around Okur had settled down and was dialed in from distance knocking down four trey balls. He finished the game with 19 points, 9 boards and another solid defensive effort on Yao which he shared with first year soldier Paul Millsap.
I thought the pace of the first half greatly favored the Rockets. Yao was able to get off to a strong start scoring the first six point of the game. He finished with 25 points but committed 8 turnovers.
During the first half Craig Sager had a game break where he flashed back on each of Tracy McGrady’s first round playoff mishaps. Sager called McGrady, “perhaps the best NBA player ever to not make it out of the first round of the playoffs.” Not exactly the superlative you’re looking for.
The second half brought more inspired play from the Utah Jazz. Back to back threes from Mehmet Okur pushed the lead to eight points. Okur has been doing a lot of masonry work this series but the Rockets defenders might want to consider closing out on the man. A few minutes later Okur nails another three ball so apparently my advice will not be considered. Fair enough. This is all to the delight of Reggie Miller who pinpointed a strong offensive night from Okur as one of his keys to a Utah victory. Terrific insight Reggie. It’s not as if Okur is a little used guy on a 10 day, the man was an all-star this season.
Gordon Giricek knocked down a wide open three from the right wing after losing Luther Head with a series of screens and hard v-cuts. No wait, he simple strolled back behind the arc, caught the ball and nailed a wide open shot. Head’s defensive rotations couldn’t be lazier. Why is he in the game? Can John Lucas III live a little?
On the flip side the Jazz appear to be filming a Better Basketball instructional video on team defensive with flawless defensive rotations and three step closeouts on shooters. If there offense was clicking beyond the occasional deep ball they would have closed this thing out in the third. Utah leads 68-62 after three.
Houston was able to slice what was an 11 point lead down to 1 during the fourth quarter but just didn’t have enough to get over the hump. The previously mentioned Kirilenko block on McGrady cued a 13-3 Utah run that sealed the game.
This sets up another game seven for Tracy McGrady and just as he requested, all eyes (and pressure) will be on him. The home team has won every game in this series and I don’t expect that to change in Houston. The state of Texas already has one premature casualty this postseason and Nelly ball is waiting in the wings for the winner of this series. A part of me is glad the Dallas – Golden State classic wrapped so there will be more eyes on the Houston – Utah game 7, which will be a battle. I said the theme for this series going in was, “Grindin’” and while my Houston in five prediction looks foolish right now, I think I got the soundtrack spot-on.