Coming in to Friday night's game in Indiana against the Pacers, the good times were starting to roll for the Rockets. Yao Ming was taking it up several notches and his teammates were getting the job done around him.
However, they were about to face the Pacers -- in their joint. The same Indiana squad that won 12 of their last 13 games and owns the best record in basketball (33-11 and 17-4 at home).
That didn't stop the Rockets, and the good times just keep rolling on.
Houston's defense was unbelievably tenacious in the final three quarters as Yao, Steve Francis and Jim Jackson led the Rocks to a stunning 78-74 win in Indianapolis.
What a game! Wow, I'm still coming down from it. Intense, grueling and playoff-like, the Rockets had some big defensive moments late as the win ups the Rockets mark to 24-17 on the year.
Before I get in to dishing out all the compliments in this one, let me say when it came to "winning time" on the offensive end of the floor, when all the chips were down and the Rockets needed a big score, they coughed up a Texas-sized hairball in this one.
So let me get this out of the way right now, in just one paragraph, and then I'll be done with it:
Steve, nice frickin' passes back-to-back in the fourth, turning a chance to go up 7 in to a tie game in 20 seconds. Maurice Taylor, way to loose your cool by pushing Jamaal Tinsley out of bounds when we were already heading in transition after your huge block. Fellas, 24-second shot clock violation with 45 seconds to go in desperate need of a bucket? I-n-e-x-c-u-s-a-b-l-e. Cuttino Mobley, who in the bloody hell were you passing to with 17 seconds left? Kelvin Cato, the ball is not greased, and never, ever, ever shoot another fadeaway jumper from 14 feet out. EVER. "Cato with the turnaround" are the four scariest words an NBA play-by-play guy can ever mutter, and we heard them twice tonight.
And that's a wrap ... on to the good.
The Rockets had several chances to win the game on the offensive end (as mentioned) but they couldn't do it. Their defense won it ... that and a timely miss at the free throw line with 41 ticks left in the game by Jermaine O'Neal (31 points). With the Rockets up 75-74 and 20 seconds left in the game, the Rockets doubled O'Neal near the corner, effectively trapping him. He was forced to put up a three that was off with about 8 seconds left.
Francis got the board, dished to Mobley and he was fouled. Cuttino calmly nailed both with 2.7 seconds left in the contest.
Then with the Pacers in need of a trey and Tinsley inbounding, they tried to find Reggie Miller. Mobley was all over him, and the pass was over Reggie's head, going out of bounds. When Clarence Weatherspoon was fouled and nailed the second of a pair of freebies, the Rockets had the huge win.
Yao Ming finished with 17 points and 12 boards and at times was jaw-dropping. He put on a gorgeous move at one point on O'Neal for a fingerroll layin and tossed out Jeff Foster for a slam in the first period. He fouled out of the game with 41 seconds left. Losing Yao there was scary, but in the end it proved to be an effective foul as O'Neal missed the second free throw, and it gave the advantage to Houston.
Francis, what can you say: He was brilliant offensively in the first quarter. He hit 5 of his first 6 shots, and was popping jumpers right in Tinsley's mug, but Steve would miss 7 of his next 9 shots. He also had 2 or 3 incredibly boneheaded plays. I mentioned the costly turnover passes that he handed to Indy in the fourth, but at the end of the half he did his iso routine for the "final shot", but he shot it way too early, leaving a good 5-6 seconds on the clock. Miller burned him for it, nailing a 20-footer as the horn sounded.
Still, a monster game for Steve, who put up 19 points, 7 boards, 6 assists and 4 very key steals.
And I simply can't say enough good things about Jim Jackson. This is the glue of the team right here folks. He's playing terrific basketball and he's got to be one of (if not the) free agent steal this season in the NBA. He finished with 14 points and 10 boards, and nailed 4 threes, all of which came in the first half.
Mobley did not have it going on tonight, and had some blunders with the ball late (scary ones at that), but his defensive play on Miller and the clutch free throws in the final couple of seconds were fantastic.
Cato had 7 points and 5 boards while Taylor added 6 and 5. Both shot 3-8 from the floor. Mo did have a big bucket in the fourth and a major block on Tinsley, but blew that with the double foul called right afterwards.
The Rockets defense doesn't need to prove it anymore, but if you still thought it was a fluke, this should throw that right out the window. They held the Pacers to 36.8% shooting, and Ron Artest, who for some reason was playing with a bandaged thumb, was held to 3-18 from the floor.
As big a win as they come -- that's what this was. I was incredibly frustrated with their offensive play in the fourth quarter and I probably would have eaten my chair had it not been so high in carbs, but they won and I've got to hand it to them. Neither Detroit nor San Antonio could go in to Indiana recently and get wins, but Houston did.
They are serving notice... they may not be one of the big boys yet, but they're working their way there. Defense wins championships, and right now Houston's is first class.