Game report: Rockets 99, Blazers 95
It was a game that should not have been close. Just before it started, the Blazers pulled forward Ime Udoka out of the lineup, declaring him finished for the season due to an injury. That left the Portland team without three of its five starters -- four if you still call Joel Przybilla its starting center -- and with only 10 players dressed to play. It should have been a cakewalk for the visiting Houston Rockets. And for three quarters it was. The Rockets spent most of the night on cruise control -- up 15 points here, 20 points there. I think they had a 25-point lead at one point.
But in the fourth quarter, Houston got tired and lazy, and a bunch of real no-names off the Blazer bench combined with star point man Brandon Roy to roar back into it. The Rockets were ahead by only five with four minutes left, and they basically played the Blazers even the rest of the way. The result was a narrow victory for the visiting team.
The Portland squad is out of playoff contention, but its players, God bless 'em, come to play whenever they suit up. Tonight recent acquisition (and hometown product) Freddy Jones started pumping in the points at the end, winding up with 18. Unfortunately, on the other end of the floor Houston Hall of Famer Tracy McGrady was going to town, pouring in 32, and Jones was one of several Blazers who couldn't quite contain him.
Except for Roy, who had 20 points and six assists, the Blazers couldn't get a fluid offense together. Travis Outlaw had 16, and big man Jamaal Magloire scored 13, but it seemed that every one of those was off a broken play, a shot that was at least somewhat forced, or a loose ball. With Chinese giant Yao Ming in the middle of the Houston defense, it was tough for Portland to get anything organized going. That the Blazers ended up with 95 is testament to the ferocious output they produced in the fourth quarter -- which they won by the score of 36-21.
Houston's good, but don't look for them in the NBA Finals, or even the Western Conference finals. They're one superstar short of being a championship team. Yao and McGrady are a formidable attack, but beyond that, they're nothing special. Rafer Alston put up 23 points against the Blazers' second and third strings, but against one of the league's elite teams, he'll come up short. McGrady's prone to injuries, of course, and with one minute to go in the game tonight, he went down with a banged-up knee. He was up and walking around, but who knows how bad it is? I saw a sure sign of the frustration that his injuries have engendered. When he hit the deck, one of the Houston assistant coaches slammed his clipboard on the floor before running out to see what was wrong. As if to say, "Here we go again!" With the big lead that Houston had enjoyed a half-hour before, the game should have been in hand, and T-Mac and Yao should have been next to each other on the bench, laughing the night away. But given their lackluster play in the fourth quarter, the visitors had to have their prime players involved right to the end.
Make no mistake: Yao is a true force of nature. He continues to improve, as he has every month since arriving in the NBA. He's no Kareem, but he's at least 7 feet 6 inches tall and more than 300 pounds heavy. He's got more meat on his upper body now, he's still agile, and he can shoot foul shots (although he missed two big ones down the stretch tonight). When he's out there, the opposition isn't likely to have much of an inside game. And if you're like the Blazers tonight, with neither of your main big men in uniform, you have none. Guys like Dan Dickau take their little drives in to Yao, and he moves them around so that their puny layup wannabes look like those of high school kids. Amazing to watch.
With so many of the Portland main men missing, this should have been Martell Webster's night. But it wasn't. He continues to run around the court, getting rebounds, playing some D, and helping out, but it's starting to look as though he was a grossly overrated high school prospect who burned up a Blazer draft pick. I really have been pulling for this guy, but at least in the current Blazer system, he's not a real factor. Travis Outlaw can put in some points, at least, even though he isn't blowing anyone away with his play. If he had a killer three-point shot, he'd be quite an asset, but as his game now stands, his contribution is just so-so.
The nicest surprise of the night for Portland was Luke Schenscher, a huge center from Australia who's been brought in for a cup of coffee at the end of the season while Przybilla works on an early golf schedule. Schenscher actually gave Yao a little trouble from time to time, and he scored six points in 15 minutes before fouling out. The fans gave him a warm round of applause when his time on the court was up. Sergio and Raef also appeared, but didn't do much to impress. I thought Rodriguez deserved a little more time out there -- he might have loosened up the Blazers' stilted offense -- but when a bench unit without him started tearing things up in the fourth quarter, you can see why Coach Nate stayed with what was working.
In sum, the Blazers at least had that "opportunity to win" that they have seen so often this season. It's only a matter of time before they start to convert those chances into victories.
Off the court, the big surprise of the night came from the Blazers' growing core of walking wounded. I thought for sure that nice guy LaMarcus Aldridge, whose career hit a speed bump when he was diagnosed with a heart problem, would be on the bench in his street clothes. I also figured that Zach Randolph, self-proclaimed "gangsta not a Blaza" whose season ended with hand surgery, would be long gone to Indiana by now. But lo and behold, there was Zach on the bench in his suit. I didn't see LaMarcus.
On with the requisite blurry photos. Here's newly anointed Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard, making his entrance from the visitors' tunnel of all places:
Yao in warmups:
T-Mac practicing foul shots:
Here's Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy in action during a timeout. He says surprisingly little during timeouts -- in fact, during most of them, nobody says anything in their huddle. Only during the last 15 seconds or so does the coach announce something or other:
He has this guy's attention:
Here's McGrady walking around on the sideline trying to feel how badly he's injured his knee:
Meanwhile, along the baseline near the Houston bench sat former Blazer center Chris Dudley, with his kids. As we've blogged about before, he's a smart and sweet guy. The crowd gave him a nice ovation when they flashed a shot of him on the jumbo screen over mid-court:
I also passed Blazer retiree Jerome Kersey in the bar (where else?) at halftime, and he too got a greeting from the crowd later. Former Blazer Bonzi Wells, technically on the Houston roster, was nowhere to be seen. The story going around the arena was that he basically quit the team in the last few days. Bonzi, so glad you're gonzi.
And with that, barring an unexpected bonus game, we have taken in our last Blazer contest of the season. They've got a long way to go, but I'm really liking this team. Many thanks to the several patrons of this blog who have made my attendance possible, last year and this.