By Emry DowningHall
After exhausting my pen during my series preview discussing Houston’s focus and Utah’s inability to match up against Tracy McGrady, I was a bit surprised when Mac recorded only one point in the first half.
McGrady blamed his slow start on nerves, which were quickly alleviated in the third quarter, when T-Mac decided to do what he do and drop 16 quick ones in the period.
With their superstar back on board, the Rockets never looked back, overcoming a nine point Utah deficit at the half to win the opening game of the series 84-75.
If you play enough ball, it’s happened to you. You’re laying off your man just enough to fill the passing lanes and get a nice jump on a careless swing pass. Your eyes light up as you intercept the rock in stride going the other way. The thoughts racing through your head are too quick to recall. It’s instinct at this point, you’ve been there before. You take that last dribble before planting your left foot preparing to make the P.Y.T’s “oooh and awe”, and then, disaster – that hallow feeling. No lift on a dead leg. Whether you are able to turn what would have been a crowd-pleasing dunk into a sheepish finger roll is on you and your athleticism, but last night, Derek Fisher experienced this with the whole world watching.
The playoff veteran, who is supposed to be the rock on an inexperienced Jazz team, blew a wide open layup that may have cut the Rockets’ charge in the third quarter. Instead, Rafer Alston picked up the rock and heaved it to a wide open Yao Ming (28 points, 13 rebounds) for a quick two-handed slam.
That sequence serves as a microcosm for the second half of play where, at times, the Jazz appeared as shook ones in a playoff atmosphere. No doubt the Rocket’s third quarter run was impressive, but Utah appeared emotionally beaten, where an experienced squad would have been more resilient.
At the start of the game, Jerry Sloan stayed with his winning formula going with the pick and pop. Deron Williams and Mehmet Okur had it going in the first half. The more I watch Okur, the more he impresses me. His game is certainly better suited to play alongside a bruising center, but his athleticism always catches me off guard.
Did you catch Carlos Boozer’s second quarter bangout on Yao Ming? I’m usually on the fantasy tip for Slam, so we don’t get a chance to talk straight hoops that much. Let me be clear: I respect a guy who rises up, protects his rim and says f*ck the poster. It’s a tough situation for the shot blocker because if you beat up the shot attempt, people will give you props, but they quickly forget if you get caught napping on the next play. Last night with 2:08 left in the first half, the Jazz were rolling and Carlos Boozer drove on the left baseline, bounced up, and absolutely stuffed one on Yao with the left. FACE! Boozer had the Toyota Center on the hush after that one.
Speaking of protecting the hoop, big Dikembe Mutombo was pumping, “What you know about that,” and let Paul Millsap know, “I know all about that,” with a monster third quarter block complete with the finger wag. Mountain had me rolling when he brought that out. The man is a legend.
Glancing at the box score, it’s clear AK-47 wants to make a run at the biggest disappointment of the year award with a lackluster 2 points and 1 board in 16 minutes. Booze Cruise was atrocious from the field (4-17), but still managed a double double in 39 minutes. Okur couldn’t find his stroke either, and the Jazz as a whole shot 35% from the field and a wretched 52% from the stripe. Cue Jerry Sloan shanking an inconsequential assistant postgame.
Deron Williams stood out with 15 points, 9 dimes and 9 boards. Matt Harpring is tough! Tell me you wouldn’t be shook daddy going up against him in a pickup game? He was solid last night off the bench with 14 points and 8 boards.
For the Rockets, Yao had a game high 28. Bang, like T-Mac, had 23, 4 boards and 7 dimes, while Rafer Alston had 9 points on three trey balls. Skip was letting them fly, hoisting 10 attempts from downtown.
Overall, I think Houston showed us all something on Saturday. They overcame some adversity without pointing fingers at one another and kept the game close through the rough stretches by strapping up on the defensive end. The 84 to 75 point total is a reflection of that. To grab this next W on Monday night, Houston needs to stay focused. Utah isn’t going to shoot this poorly again, and I expect them to come out hot next time around. I’m still sayin’ Houston in five. You feelin’ me yet?