From the opening tip, it was clear. One team was ready for the playoffs, and the other team wasn't.
I'm not sure what Rick Adelman told his Rockets prior to tonight's game. It probably would not have made much of a difference. This group of players has been in the playoffs before. They've lost in the playoffs before. And they knew exactly how hard they needed to play to keep themselves from losing again. But they didn't stop there. Yao, Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, and Ron Artest made sure this game wasn't even close. Every little run that Portland made was answered by the Rockets. What was most impressive to me was that Houston continued to build on it's lead throughout the entire game and never gave any ground. It was a great all-around performance by a bunch of playoff vets and a midget point guard out for a kill.
We know what it's like to lose in late April. Portland doesn't. For the most part, they are all young, inexperienced, and just happy to be here. But the Rockets? They are sick of the first round. For them, it's like having a third anniversary dinner with the in-laws. In the past two years, they've looked forward to the first round. Now they just want to spit their game and get the hell out.
Some scattered thoughts on our brilliant performance:
- Yao did the dirty on Portland. I'm not sure what Nate McMillan was planning in order to stop the Ming Dynasty, but leaving Joel Przybilla by his lonesome to defend The Great Wall for the majority of the first quarter was not going to suffice. Kudos to all of our guys to recognize Yao's advantage and get him the ball as early and as often as possible. He was in a groove from the beginning, hitting two outside shots to open up the scoring. And then he got the post-moves going, hitting a jump hook over Przybilla after the former Rockets draftee hit the deck in Okurian fashion. The second quarter was no different as far as production goes. While Yao's points were not as straight up post-movish as they were in the first quarter, he was still able to find the ball under the basket for some easy dunks. We also did a fantastic job of making entry passes to Yao, as he only had one turnover. Normally, if Yao turns it over, it is as a result of a difficult catch that he has to make, followed by a quick move and a steal. But in this game, he had no trouble at all sealing off defenders and giving himself space to work. Fantastic game from Shanghai's Finest. And he did it all on ....(in your best Ed Rooney voice)...niiiiine shots.
- My game MVP goes to someone other than Yao, however. It has to be Aaron Brooks. And I'm not going to get into his ridiculous stat line very much, because 27 points, 4 rebounds, and 7 assists speaks for itself. But Aaron, for the first time in a long time, looked like a four star general out there. He was comfortable, composed, and most surprisingly, he was smart! If there was any knock on Aaron on the offensive side of the ball, it was that once you saw him begin to drive, it was layup or bust. Normally, he would go out of control and get his shot blocked. But against one of the league's premier defenses, Aaron drove with authority and with awareness. If something wasn't there, then he would pull up his dribble, hide behind a few post players on the block so viewers couldn't see him for a second, and then dribble back up to the top of the key and start over again. I'll take 15 seconds of Aaron dribbling and looking for a smart pass over a forced pass and a turnover any day of the week. In addition to merely dribbling around, Aaron did a phenomenal job working the pick and roll to his favor by creating bad match ups for Portland. On a number of occasions, Brooks found himself guarded by LaMarcus Aldridge, and without hesitation, he drove at Aldridge and either blew by him to the basket or pulled up for a jump shot and converted. Aaron Brooks was the star of tonight's game, ladies and gents. Both on offense, and on defense (Steve Blake: 5 points).
- We hustled like maniacs. Not much more to elaborate on there. I remember seeing Shane Battier tip a ball to Ron Artest for a layup after the ball had been loose for about ten seconds. I remember seeing Ron and Lowry dive on the floor for other loose balls. Yao Ming was bodying up Oden and had two very impressive blocked shots. Luis Scola was making LaMarcus Aldridge's live a living hell. Our defense was nothing short of incredible. The hustle was definitely there.
- We were so efficient that Morey probably wet himself. How's this for a stat-geek's dream? We scored 108 points on 65 shots. Portland scored 81 points on 84 shots. That's insane! Even better, Brandon Roy's 21 points came on 23 shot attempts. The difference between our two respective scoring outputs was simply execution. Portland became reduced to a long jump shooting team. Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Channing Frye, Steve Blake, Rudy Fernandez -- they all took a good number of long two pointers that clanked. In fact, all five of those guys combined to shoot 10 for 31 from the field. And it was largely due to shot selection. It will take another game or two for me to tell if the jump shooting obsession was due either to good defense by Houston or to a mindset that Portland simply lives and dies by. Our defense loves to see long jump shots and hates to see points in the paint. Any defense does. But we're able to close out so well that if the Blazers remain content with taking shots from the elbow, 81 points is going to become a series average.
- Brandon Roy needs to focus on his game, not on the referees. Brandon took some hard hits tonight. Some of those hits were called fouls, and some were not. But on numerous possessions, it looked to me as if Roy were driving at the basket with the purpose of drawing a foul for the hell of it, as opposed to driving with the purpose to score. Every time he didn't get a foul call, he would make it visibly clear that he was frustrated. Over time, Roy will learn that the playoffs are called much differently than the regular season. There is going to be more contact. We will see how he responds in Game 2, but he needn't take on anyone more than Ron Artest or Shane Battier. Adding the refs to that short list will only hurt his team.
Three Up (that have yet to be mentioned in detail):
Ron Artest -- Ron's shot selection may have been stellar tonight, but his defense was superb. Brandon Roy will score points, but as long as he misses a lot of shots in the process, it's all good. Roy was hounded by Artest tonight. But getting back to his offense, Artest had struggled in his last two games, and I was worried that it might carry over to tonight's contest. Not so much; he was aware of his role on offense right from the start, and he made sure that the majority of the shots that he took were good shots.
Luis Scola -- I can't say enough about My Friend From Argentina's defense tonight. He made Aldridge get physical down on the block and closed out hard of most of LaMarcus's jump shots. His offense was there as well, as he had a nice tip-in towards the end of the game that caused Doris Burke to compliment him. She'll be fined, no doubt.
Dikembe Mutombo -- Eighteen minutes of playing time from Deke off the bench? Nine rebounds? Two ferocious finger wags? I know that sometimes prayers are answered, but this was totally unexpected. Keep up the good work, big guy. We're going to need it if Yao gets in foul trouble again.
Von Wafer -- He shot 1 for 6 and never looked comfortable. Then again, this was his first time playing in the playoffs, so he gets a pass.
Shane Battier's Threes -- They didn't fall. On a brighter note, Shane was fouled on a three point attempt and made all three free throws, so that has to count for something.
Carl Landry -- Five fouls in 11 minutes isn't acceptable for Carl. He is going to have to stay on the floor given Yao's history of foul trouble in the postseason.
Stats of the Night:
Field Goals: Houston .585 - Portland .417
Three Pointers: Houston 8/21 - Portland 1/11
Free Throws: Houston 24/28 - Portland 10/16
Rebounds: Houston 44 - Portland 30
Offensive Rebounds: Houston 8 - Portland 15
Assists: Houston 16 - Portland 12
Blocked Shots: Houston 6 - Portland 3
Fouls: Houston 21 - Portland 23
Dunk of the Night:
That should do the trick.
Next Game: Tuesday, 10 PM @ Portland. We beat Dallas twice in their place a few years back - let's do it to the Blazers as well.