Well...yeah. We won, and that's great, but there are still plenty of nagging issues that we need to have solved by the time Game 4 arrives. Obviously, there was plenty of good; we would not have won the game had there not been some good. Having home court was a plus, and we finally got the defensive gut-it-out game that we've been waiting for all series. We finally guarded Brandon Roy the way that we are capable of, and Luis Landry did an excellent job defending LaMarcus Aldridge. But we were lucky that our defense stepped up to the challenge, because while our offense was patient and efficient when it came to finding shots, we turned the ball over 12 times and You Know Who only took seven shots.
Speaking of Yao, something needs to be done about his ineffectiveness. The Ming Dynasty was supposed to be dominant in this series, but thus far, he has only taken 22 shots. That's the kind of number that most fans would like to see in one playoff game, not three combined. Up until Game 3, the problem was getting Yao the ball. Last night, we not only couldn't get it to him down the stretch, but when we were able to feed him, he didn't come through. What worries me the most about last night was that Yao wasn't doubled as often as he had been in Game 2. Instead, on most possessions, Yao was by himself with either Greg Oden or Joel Przybilla. It appeared that he was able to get position on Oden, but not on Przybilla. At some point, we need to stop blaming our coaches and ourselves, because if the best center in the world can't get himself open when he's in single coverage, then there is nobody else to blame but him. We'll continue to try to find ways to get Yao the ball on the block, but until he can figure out how to get some position, nothing is going to work.
Ball Don't Lie's Kelly Dwyer pointed out something that I mostly agree with. Here's what he had to say:
There was a lot not to like about this game. Dick Bavetta's crew continued to let defenses get away with rough, foul-laden play under the guise of "jostling for position," and coupled with Houston's continued refusal to understand that it boasts a 7-6 guy with skills in the low post, this completely took Yao Ming out of the game.
Sure, he missed a few turnaround jumpers, but you try hitting them while getting a two-armed shove in the back as you leave your feet. Kind of helps to deny the whole "squaring your shoulders"-thing. I hate this. If Yao did that to Joel Przybilla on the other end, the Houston center would have fouled out by halftime. I don't blame Joel for anything, it's his job to see what he can get away with, but I wish the post play was cleaned up.
The quote that I have bolded is something that I wholeheartedly support, because it is 100% true. Yao's massive size sometimes minimizes the amount of contact he appears to takes in the post, and while I don't think Przybilla necessarily fouled him like a dog in the post, Dwyer's point about a role reversal makes perfect sense. The problem is that Przybilla is by no means a focus of the offense, and that in turn allows him to use more energy on defense. However, this probably eliminates a few fouls that Yao may pick up while trying to guard him in the demanor that Dwyer mentioned. It's never easy to call things exactly fair, and I don't think the referees were that bad tonight. But it would be nice for Yao to have a little help from the refs when it comes to getting position. Still, as I noted above, he does need to do a better job by himself, because betting on the refs is never smart.
Many people have been crying out for our perimeter players to lob the ball over the defender to Yao, but that's not a very good idea for two reasons. For one, aside from Shane Battier, we don't have very good post-entry passers. And secondly, if we somehow manage to even get the ball near Yao on a lob, Portland will rotate a guard over to knock it out of Yao's hands before he can make a move. I was at the game last night, and I watched from my nosebleed seats as Travis Outlaw and others sat on the opposite block in anticipation of a lob. Lobbing it to Yao only makes a clumsy guy do even more work with his hands, and it will only cause a flurry of turnovers. The best way to get Yao the ball is a direct post-entry pass, and now we need to figure out how to get him open and how to get him the ball in the small window that he is open for.
However, defensively, Yao was on his game. He had three blocked shots and rotated on Brandon Roy extremely well. The most impressive part of Yao's game was his defensive rebounding - he grabbed eleven of them, and most were in traffic. He attacked his rebounds and was strong with the ball when Portland would try to swat it from him. As I recall, LaMarcus Aldridge knocked the ball away from Yao on one possession in the first quarter, but other than that, Yao had his way with the boards.
It was refreshing to see Ron Artest and Shane Battier back on their game last night. Brandon Roy and Travis Outlaw shot a combined 8 for 29 from the field. It looked like Battier was matched up with Outlaw for the most part, and Ron was on Roy whenever Artest was in the game. Battier did a nice job forcing Outlaw to force up some long jump shots, and while Travis usually does a nice job driving and pulling up for a jumper, Shane made sure to anticipate it and nearly poke Outlaw's eyes out on every attempt. Outlaw did get an open look or two, but he never found a rhythm and missed four three pointers. Roy, on the other hand, didn't find much space at all. The open threes that he did take were rushed, and Yao did a great job sealing off the basline when Roy would try to drive around Yao and use him as a pick on Artest or Battier. The Rockets were obviously placing the majority of their focus on Roy, as we emphasized a quick double on many of the screens that Oden or Aldridge would set. Roy still managed to get to the free throw line, but 6 for 18 from the field is a welcoming sign.
But, for all of the focus that we put on Roy, we forgot one Spaniard of whom I think extremely highly, that being Rudy Fernandez. If there is anyone with a quicker release from three point land, then he must not play much, because Rudy's is the fastest that I've ever seen. Which means that if you leave him open for a second or two (Von Wafer - listen up!), he is going to make the the shot quite often. Last night, he hit 5 of 7 shots from deep, including a ridiculous catch and shoot from the corner in the final minute that I can't help but consider karma for Aaron Brooks' pull-up three pointer from about 35 feet in Game 2. The last thing we need is for Fernandez to get hot, because he is capable of picking up slack for Roy if we manage to shut number seven down again.
Portland finally won the point guard match up, as Steve Blake had a very good game, making four threes and dishing out ten assists. If there is anything that I have noticed with Blake thus far, it is that he isn't afraid to drive to the rim and finish, but that he also won't be very effective on his shots if you make him pull up. He's lethal on the catch-and-shoot, so Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry will need to work on their close outs. Luckily, Blake forced up a long three pointer at the end of the game when Portland could have gotten a better look.
It was weird watching Ron Artest, because you figured that he may start chucking up shots when Yao would come out, but aside from one stretch in the second half, Ron was extraordinarily patient. We only saw one or two pull-up, fadeaway jumpers. When he did score the ball, it was on layups. His jump shot wasn't there tonight from the beginning, and I credit Ron for recognizing this. However, I am hoping that this wasn't just another case of Ron's first-minute shot evaluation kicking in. Artest has a tendency to judge his shot based off of his performance early in the game. You saw what he did in the first few minutes in Game 2, and then you also saw him try to do the same thing late in the game, which led to disaster. Artest needs to realize that there is no barometer for what insane shots he can or cannot take. Instead, it would be nice if he could limit the crazy shots, even if they are going in, and instead look to take better shots. Unfortunately, you and I both know that will never happen, so for now, we will have to live with his odd offensive procedures.
Luis Scola was back in action after a dormant Game 2. He led the Rockets in shot attempts with 15, and he made 8 of them, including a ginormous shot in the fourth that gave us enough cushion to squeak out the win. While we're on the topic of jump shooting big men, let us also give some praise to Carl Landry, who made three to four long jump shots that kept us in the game while Yao was on the bench (not that Yao's return made much of a difference anyway). One extremely overlooked aspect of the Rocket offense is our ability to stretch the defense with Scola and Landry. They have very effective jump shots, and yet they never get the credit that other jump shooting bigs such as David West get. Granted, West is an All-Star with better numbers, but it wouldn't shock me to see Carl Landry develop into someone like West within the next few years. If he keeps improving his outside shot, it could definitely happen.
Shane Battier finally found his shot, making two threes, including one from the parking lot in TJ Sorrentine fashion (1:00 on the video, it is crazy). His defense was stellar as previously mentioned, but his offense was very much needed. I'm scratching my head when I see that he had 16 points, becuase I can't remember him taking that many shots, but I'll accept it for what it is and look for more of it in Game 4.
If there is any Rocket that can send a charge into our offense off the bench, it's Von Wafer, who practically tore down Toyota Center with a few of his dunks in the first half. He didn't have his best game offensively as he shot 3 for 9, but those two throwdowns that he had early set the tone for the half and gave the crowd a reason to lose their voices for a night.
Lastly, I must give some credit to Kyle Lowry, who can draw fouls like none other. For him to drive hard to the basket and get a call nearly every time is a great asset to have, and it goes to show how smart and strong he is to take the kind of contact he takes and still manage to push his arms up through the contact in the hopes of shooting free throws.
When Game 4 rolls around Sunday night, Houston will have to make a few adjustments. The Yao problem will need to be solved, or at least countered, and our defense will need to step up like we did in Game 3. Our crowd certainly played a role, and while I'm not the biggest fan of the "Portland sucks!" chant (Portland fans are usually classy, so I don't see the need to treat their team like Utah), at least we were loud. We'll have to get off to another good start on Sunday, and if all else fails, we can always rely on Channing Frye to miss a few jumpers from 20 feet out.
Finally, it was great to see Dikembe Mutombo in attendance, and even greater was the feeling I got when Toyota Center erupted in applause of his career and devotion to our franchise. I even managed to get a low-quality iPhone picture of the standing ovation:
Check out Blazer's Edge for Dave's recap and Ben's media report.