Sunday, April 22, 2007

Rockets-Jazz: "It's On Me!"

I had no idea T-Mac was going to go crazy and start yelling "It's on me!" at Stephen A when I made my picks. I swear. But I can't say I'm bummed out by this turn of events. If McGrady and Co. believe they can win, they are much more likely to do so.

Exhibit A: tonight's Game One against Utah.

Despite struggling mightily out of the gate, Houston was able to rely on its defense until Yao and T-Mac found the range. McGrady came out looking to be a playmaker, as he racked up five quick assists before scoring a single point. However, despite strong defense and the aforementioned dimes, T-Mac had a hard time getting his jumper going and once he missed his first six, it looked like he might start pressing. As for Yao, he was getting knocked off the block and missing some chip shots. All told, the Rockets were down nine heading into halftime and looking more than a little shaky.

That ceased to be a problem about, oh, two minutes into the second half, when McGrady drilled three straight tough jumpers in traffic and started pulling the Utah double-teams further and further from the basket. Soon enough, Yao was doing work inside, Battier and Alston were finally hitting threes, and even Juwan Howard was scoring in the lane. Meanwhile, Utah couldn't buy a non-Deron Williams basket, as that fantastic Rockets D did its thing.

The game tonight put on display all the reasons why I am backing Houston as my horse in the NBA Playoffs. With T-Mac finally entering a postseason healthy and determined, they have the perimeter star that can create offense, put pressure on defenses (and refs) with the dribble, and make the big shots needed in close games. Yao gives them this postseason's #1 or #2 lowpost scoring option, depending on how you feel about Tim Duncan. Chuck Hayes and Shane Battier have added grit, versatility, and leadership. And perhaps most importantly, Rafer Alston and Luther Head have added footspeed. It took me a long while to appreciate the crooked-shooting Alston, but I think I finally understand why Van Gundy was willing to roll with Skip as his starting point guard. The reason: he's fast.

Houston's biggest problems in 2005 were: 1) Yao got called for a foul every time he set a screen (which led to Beetlejuice racking up that amazing $100K fine), and 2) Their guards were slow. The first problem seems to have gone away this year, as Yao is becoming a darling of the refs. But the speed thing had to be addressed. No offense to guys like Bobby Sura, Jon Barry, and David Wesley, but when Mike James is making you look like offensive linemen at the end of two-a-days, you've got a problem. And in the West, backcourt speed is imperative. The Mavs killed Houston with Terry and rookie Devin Harris in '05 and play at an even faster pace now. The Suns obviously run like mad. And even the Spurs are surprisingly reliant on Parker's speed. Without a fleet point guard and a speedy guard off the bench, Houston was never going to be able to compete with the conference's elite teams. But Rafer and Head give them that ability. For all of Alston's wayward heaves and bad decisions, his ability to pick pockets, play passing lanes, harrass the ball, and speed up the offense are invaluable skills that move his overall contribution onto the positive side of the balance sheet.

It all adds up to a statement I never dreamed I would make: Rafer Alston is the reason I am taking the Rockets to win it all.

Of course, that doesn't mean that this whole thing isn't on T-Mac. He told us that it was. And then he proved that he meant it.

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