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Sunday May 6, 2007 1:40 AM




Jazz knock Rockets out of playoffs in Game 7 thriller


Game 7: Utah 103, Houston 99


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Damien Pierce
Rockets.com Staff Writer


HOUSTON -- The Rockets could handle Carlos Boozer and cope with overcoming an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

But controlling the defensive glass? That's what hurt.

The Rockets, a team designed to make defensive stops and limit opponents' second-chance opportunities, couldn't keep the NBA's best rebounding team off the offensive glass when it mattered most in the closing minutes.

The result? The Utah Jazz snatched three critical offensive rebounds in the final 90 seconds and grabbed a thrilling 103-99 victory from the Rockets in Game 7 of their first round playoff series at Toyota Center.

Despite entering the series as the league's premeire defensive rebounding team, the Rockets watched the Jazz corral three offensive boards in a tight game that resulted in five second-chance points.

That's your ballgame.

"We couldn't get a rebound when it mattered the most," Rockets forward Chuck Hayes said. "We had our chances. It was right there for us, but they wanted it more."

The Rockets failed to reach the Western Conference semifinals for the first time since 1997 and Tracy McGrady missed an opportunity to advance to the next round for the first time in his decade-long career.

What hurt more than anything is that the Rockets were beaten in the same areas that had made them a 52-win team over the course of the regular season.

The Rockets came into the series leading the league in field-goal percentage defense and defensive rebounding, but couldn't control the Jazz in either category in Game 7.

Behind Boozer's hot hand and some timely three pointers from Mehmet Okur, the Jazz tossed in 51.3 percent of their shots against the Rockets. Boozer paced Utah with a game-high 35 points and 14 rebounds.

The bigger problem: Utah's offensive rebounding.

After limiting the Jazz to three offensive rebounds through the first three quarters, the Rockets allowed Utah to pound the glass for seven extra oppotunities in the fourth period.

The final three ended up doing the most damage.

"We missed too many free throws maybe to win," said Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, noting that his team shot 24-of-33 from the foul line. "But the game was lost defensively and rebounding. The two things we tried to build our team around because you can be consistent (in those areas). And tonight, when you give up seven second shots in the fourth quarter and the team shoots 51 percent, more times than not, you’re not going to win."

Having wiped away a Utah's eight-point lead in the fourth quarter and even seizing a brief advantage, the Rockets were only trailing 96-95 with 1:46 remaining and looked intent on riding their home-court advantage to a big finish.

Instead, the Jazz made all of Houston's stops a moot point by crashing the offensive glass.

After Okur misfired on a three-point attempt, Boozer snatched a long rebound. The Jazz swung the ball around the perimeter and eventually found Okur again as he stroked a jumper from beyond the arc to push Utah's lead back to 99-95.

Following a pair of free throws from Yao Ming that cut the deficit to 99-97, the Rockets once again got the stops they were seeking. Okur twice missed open three-pointers, but the Jazz collected both offensive rebounds. The last one came with 19.9 seconds left, forcing the Rockets to foul Boozer. The Jazz forward canned both of his free throws to stretch the lead back to four points.

"I think I didn't do a good job of rebounding wherever -- long rebounds, short rebounds," said Yao, who had 29 points and six rebounds. "That's why we lost. You can't say that it's because with long rebounds you can't get it. I have to get it and I didn't get it. I didn't do my job."

The Rockets had one last chance after McGrady scored with 9.8 seconds left to slice Utah's lead to 101-99, but Houston couldn't prevent eight seconds from rolling off the clock before finally getting a foul. Andrei Kirilenko nailed both free throws with 1.7 seconds remaining for the final margin.

"There's no good explanation for that," said Van Gundy when asked about Houston's inability to foul quickly after an inbounds pass.

The Rockets failed to close out the series after winning the first two games and couldn't ride home-court advantage into the Western Conference semifinals. Now, they'll watch the Jazz face the Golden State Warriors in the next round on Monday. The Rockets couldn't help feeling like they had let one slip away after failing to control the glass.

"Right now, it's a lot of hurt," said McGrady, who had 29 points and 13 assists. "Disappointed in the outcome. We put so much into the season, but you go through the course of the season and you fight and grind it out when you're not feeling well, get into the playoffs, put ourselves in a great position to do something really special with the type of season that we had, Yao going out for two months, we get our team and we get our strength back.

"We faced a great team, well coached and well disciplined. Great execution team, hard-playing team, and for us to go out and compete like we did, in some sense it feels good that we competed the way we did and pushed seven games, but on the other hand, it was just disappointing."