About an hour before the game started, Jason Friedman tweeted that Tracy McGrady would be playing tonight - limited minutes (no more than seven or eight), and only in the first half.
I admit that I'm a T-Mac fan. Through all of the crap over the past year about Tracy McGrady, I've maintained a pretty consistent belief in his commitment to the team, to his career, and to basketball in general, so forgive me if I view his return through the rosiest of lenses. A little over a month ago, I wrote that the T-Mac injury "saga" felt, if nothing else, like it was coming to a close, and tonight was the beginning of the end, I hope. Even if this was simply a showcase for a trade, and even if McGrady doesn't play significant minutes (or in a significant way) for some time, it just felt good to see the Tracy back on the court. And Rockets fans obviously felt the same way. Yeah, there were a few boos scattered in there, but Tracy got a warm reception from a crowd that - supposedly - had turned on him forever.
In his seven minutes on the court, McGrady played some decent defense, grabbed three rebounds, and hit a line-drive three point shot. He was clearly having trouble running the break, but the important thing is that he can jump. What a change from last February.
So, with all of that said, let's talk about some players who stayed on the court for more than half of a quarter.
The Rockets didn't trail at any point in the game after the first quarter, and they never let the Pistons get closer than eight points after about ten minutes into the game. Given their rebounding problems through much of the game, it's hard to call this performance exactly "dominating," but the Pistons never really threatened. Rip Hamilton - ordinarily a fairly efficient offensive player (and owner of one of the best - if not the best - mid-range games in the league), started off extremely hot, but Battier did what he do: pushed Rip further out and didn't let him come off of picks uncontested.
With Rip neutralized and Stuckey shooting the Pistons out of the game, the Rockets built a lead on a ridiculous free-throw margin. Seriously - the Rockets shot almost three times as many free throws as Detroit. Was that just home cookin'? Doubtful. Stuckey and Hamilton shot from outside, and relatively few came inside. Against this Rockets team, that's a recipe for disaster.
Chase Budinger continues what Lee characterized earlier today as a RotY-deserving season. I wouldn't go that far, but the boy is clearly the real deal. Bud showed off his excellent shooting touch, coming off picks and hitting open jumpshots, but also driving to the hoop - including a very memorable alley-oop (pictured). What most impresses me, though, is everything else he does. Not everyone can be a Ben Gordon-type scorer, but they're damn sure a lot more common than players who contribute in many different ways. Bud was the Rockets' leading rebounder, and he made some good passes for assists. He's contributing in so many ways on both ends of the court, and he rewarded Adelman's (and Morey's) faith in him tonight.
On another note - Chuck totally made two free throws in a row. I know, right?
(In honor of Hanukkah and the win) Five Up:
Chase Budinger - A career night for the rookie out of Arizona.16 pts on 11 shots, 12 rebounds, 5 assists. 'Nuff said.
Aaron Brooks - 23 pts, 10 asts. This is kind of what we're coming to expect, right? Weird...
Luis Scola - Who says the Rockets can't create? 23 points and 8 rebounds, and many of those buckets came on some fairly tough shots.
Chuck Hayes / Shane Battier - These guys continue to be one of the best defensive tandems in the NBA (same goes for Ariza). They kept the Pistons out of the paint and forced them to take bad shots. What more can you ask for?
Tracy McGrady - Hate all you want (and I'm sure you will), but he made his return tonight. Good for him, and good for the Rockets.
Carl Landry - I'm nitpicking here, but I need one bad thing. Sure, Landry is arguably the Rockets' best player right now, he showed all of his scoring skills tonight, and his growth as a post player continues to amaze me, but three rebounds, Carl? Get your shit together!