By Emry DowningHall
If a coach’s portfolio is measured by his ability to inspire his players, then Jeff Van Gundy is painting his masterpiece in Houston this season. Sporting his traditional bald dome and grey frown, Van Gundy squinted and scowled from the sidelines as his team took a 2 – 0 advantage in their first round series against the Jazz on Monday night.
Sure, Yao Ming (27 points, 9 rebounds) and Tracy McGrady (31 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists) were brilliant, but this is what we come to expect from superstars in the postseason. Van Gundy’s value is best highlighted by the gutsy performance of un-drafted power forward Chuck Hayes, who grinded his way to 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Those numbers are impressive, but Hayes was most valuable in his ability to defend the middle and allow Yao Ming to stay out of foul trouble once he picked up his third. Hayes is the kind of player that reminds us that while all this draft hype makes for interesting reading, there is no measure for the intangibles that are so vital to winning basketball games (Udonis Haslem, stand up). Everyone, including Houston, passed on Chuck Hayes on draft night, and Monday night the Rockets were glad they did.
The Rockets chipped at an early Jazz lead by feeding their big fella on the block. Yao was using techniques that would make the guys over at Better Basketball proud. The Jazz are clearly trying to muscle him away from the basket, but Yao is doing an excellent job of staying wide and holding position. Once he catches the ball, he is able to get his turnaround whenever he pleases. Once that is clicking, he can show the ball and use a variety of upfakes to keep his defender off balance.
Mehmet Okur and AK-47 continued their struggles on Monday. Okur finished with 4 points on 2 of 9 shooting, and AK-47 was held scoreless in 18 minutes of play. It’s clear watching this game that both guys are pressing to make something happen, and it’s not working out. Kenny Smith commented in the post-game discussion that AK-47 appears a second late with everything he does. There’s no remedy for breaking out of a slump, but getting into early foul trouble, as was the case with AK on Monday, certainly isn’t the answer. Andre’s breakdown in front of reporters made some headlines and certainly was cause for some sneers, but if I’m Jerry Sloan, I prefer emotion, even tears, to the apathy often shown by guys who are struggling.
When Carlos Boozer, was able to fake left, drive right and hook Yao up with his third foul with 4.07 left in the second, I thought the Jazz were in pretty good shape. Even though foul trouble limited Yao’s aggressiveness, he did a nice job of staying on the floor.
Carlos Boozer was amazing on Monday night, going for 41 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists. Boozer is able to combine power and athleticism with some amazing touches around the hoop. Some of the pull-ups he was taking were around the 18 foot range, and he was just letting them fly. In the fourth, he had a beautiful high-arching turnaround over Yao that you knew was dropping as soon as it left his hand. Charles Barkley called Booze Cruise out after Saturday night and clearly, Carlos was listening. He had some playful words for Chuck and the TNT crew at the half.
T-Mac couldn’t find the range from outside, but he was knifing to the basket at will. His long arms and low dribble make his first step impossible to guard. On one drive during the first half, he put a little hesitation move on D. Fish, blew by him, rose up and was greeted by Booze Cruise and AK-47. No worries, T-Mac simple switched hands and calmly laid the ball in—eyes low the entire time. Gotta love it.
It’s easy to argue that since he can get to the hoop whenever he pleases, T-Mac settles too often for the three ball. He was 1-8 last night from deep. I think it’s important to consider that whether or not they are dropping, his three ball has to be respected and therefore, defended. This forces the defender out on T-Mac, which spreads the floor and allows for dribble penetration. Everyone around the league knows how streaky McGrady is; all he needs is one to drop to get hot. Just ask the Spurs.
I know I got my Dickie V. on earlier when I was talking about how Chuck Hayes does the little things (Paul Millsap, I see you), but note to sports announcers all over the world: We understand that Shane Battier is an excellent teammate, a hard worker, and a smart player. Really, we got it, thanks.
Just as they did in game 1, Houston controlled the second half and overcame overcoming a two point Jazz lead to win by 8. Utah never folded, and Tracy McGrady put it best when he said, “They play like they are down 15, no matter what.”
Deron Williams (17 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists) and Shane Battier had a nasty collision with 5.24 left in the game, which left Williams on the floor through two TV-timeouts. The play was definitely unintentional, and it appeared from the replay that neither guy even realized the other was going for the ball. Williams caught a hard Battier elbow across the face, but was able to get up and continue playing. Tough!
Houston has done what they set out to do and defended their turf. They are up 2-0 heading back to Salt Lake City, where the Jazz have some things to figure out. Certainly, Jerry Sloan can’t be happy his team only shot 17 free throws to Houston’s 38, but I expect that to even out in game three. Okur didn’t score his first point on Monday until very late in the second half. Mehmet, you’re an all-star, this is the playoffs, do us a favor and show up in Utah.
And finally, remember that classic Freeway, Sigel and Jay-Z banger, “What We Do” where Jay-Z said, “Bang like T-Mac, ski mask air it out?” That song came on during the Houston game, and my man Joey D., out of nowhere, shouted out, “Bang like Y. Ming, dirty socks air’em’out.” Classic. Houston in five is looking good. You still say Houston in six? Something’s gotta give!