By Emry DowningHall
Mehmet Okur is billed as a center with outside touch. He is known primarily as a finesse guy with a sweet stroke and just enough defensive prowess to get the job done. Okur’s uninspired play was a huge reason the Jazz dropped the first two games of the series in Houston.
Saturday night Okur brushed his shoulders off and matched a career playoff high with 16 points and 6 rebounds. The fact that his J was falling was certainly a relief for the Jazz, who have relied on his range all season, but to measure Okur’s impact you need to go beyond the boxscore.
Okur was once again able to frustrate Yao on the block, knocking him off his pivot and making him pay when the ball would come low enough to swipe at. A lot was written this season of Yao’s improved strength training and conditioning (He now bench presses 310 pounds, quite a feet at 7’6) which has led to his improved play. No doubt he has made giant strides, but it was clear in the second half of Saturdays game that he still has a long way to go. Okur is a sizeable player but far from a Goliath. He shouldn’t have this much success frustrating Yao in a playoff atmosphere. In the post-game interview Okur spoke of simple wanting to, “play good defense” on Yao. Thus far that mission has been accomplished.
Honestly, this was a tough game to watch. I’m a lifelong Knicks fan so I have love for Van Gundy’s style of play but this is grindin’ to the fullest. I had predicted the Rockets in five and Jerry Sloan’s targeted defensive attack is making me look foolish. The biggest surprise for me thus far is how Sloan’s troops are outworking Van Gundy’s. Consider that before game four the Jazz had seen mediocre scoring performances from Deron Williams, Mehmet Okur, and AK-47 (Andrei continued to struggle Saturday offensively). Booze Cruise had stepped up for some monster numbers but he was getting support only on the defense end. In games 3 and 4 they have done a better job containing T-Mac and Yao and shutting down the other Rockets.
With the series tied at two games apiece the big story now shifts to how T-Mac will respond from blowing another 2-0 series lead. We’ve been down this road before with McGrady and he has never come up with a W. McGrady asked for his teammates to step up after Thursday night’s debacle with only four Rockets scoring. Saturday night 10 people scored but no one, including Yao or McGrady, put in anything to raise playoff eyebrows.
There was an AK-47 citing on the defensive end Saturday as Andrei came through with four blocks. He also added four rebounds and four assists but only attempted one field goal in 29 minutes. That boy is MIA and I’m not talking where the Heat play. (Keepin’ it gangsta?)
I still predict that Houston wins the series but in order to do so they will need more from Tracy McGrady and Yao. It’s a good thing for a team leader to ask and expect his supporting cast to step up in the postseason but there comes a time where you have to strap the team on your back and drop 30+ on your opponent. For the Rockets, that time is now.
We’re about to get a unique glimpse into the mental toughness of a NBA superstar. McGrady is going to be feeling the pressure in this situation and that makes game 5 a must win in Houston. I expect a big game from T-Mac. As I said, nothing against the Jazz, I have a lot of respect for what they do, I just got to go with Houston in this one. I think game 5 brings a breakout game for T-Mac and a Rockets victory at the Toyota Center.