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Thursday January 8, 2009 1:21 AM

Slumping No More


Rockets rally past Celtics for much-needed 89-85 win

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO PLAYER OF THE GAME INTERVIEW WITH YAO MING.

Boston - Before Wednesday night’s game against Boston, Yao Ming was asked about the slump which had seen his team lose six of its last eight games. In typical Yao fashion, he responded metaphorically, saying, “When you launch a rocket, you don’t go from zero to one hundred miles [per hour] in one second.”

Yao was right, of course. It doesn’t take one second. Apparently, it requires precisely 48 minutes of physical, full-effort, grind it out basketball to do so. And a handful of clutch crunch-time performances never hurt, either.

That was the recipe the Rockets used to snap out of their skid in the biggest way possible, as Houston (22-15) knocked off the defending champion Boston Celtics 89-85.

Yao was the lynchpin, scoring 26 points, including the game-clincher in the final seconds, but he had plenty of help from teammates like Aaron Brooks (19 points, 4 assists) and Von Wafer (4-of-6 from three-point land) as well.

“I can’t tell you what a great win that was,” said Coach Rick Adelman, with equal measures of relief and pride in his voice. “Our guys came out and competed for the whole 48 minutes. After we’ve had a rough trip, to come in here and beat these guys and control the 4 th quarter - it’s just a terrific win.”

The game actually began ominously for a Rockets team which had rightfully beaten itself up for its myriad defensive shortcomings the night before in Philadelphia. By the halfway point of the first quarter, both Ron Artest and Luis Scola were on the bench with two fouls apiece, and the Celtics were sizzling, connecting on 10 of their first 13 shots from the field. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were especially effective, combining for 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting in the opening frame. As a result, Boston owned a 31-22 advantage heading to the second quarter.

But the Rockets turned the tables over the course of the next twelve minutes. Sparked in part by Chuck Hayes’ incredible defensive effort against Garnett, Houston’s D finally came to life and, as an added bonus, its offense went into peak efficiency mode, too.

Hayes, despite giving up at least five inches to KG, went toe-to-toe with the Celtics’ superstar, harassing him to such an extent that the previously scorching Garnett missed three consecutive shots with Hayes guarding him.

“You’ve got to give it to Chuck Hayes,” said Adelman. “I mean he came in that second quarter and he just battled Garnett when he really had it going, and I can’t give Chuck enough credit. He hasn’t been playing and he just took on the challenge and he kind of set the tone in that first half for us.”

At the other end of the floor, meanwhile, the Rockets were the ones catching fire. Houston hit on 12 of its 18 shots from the field in the second quarter, with Ron Artest (11 points) and Aaron Brooks (8 points) inflicting much of the damage. By halftime, the Rockets had surged to a 52-49 lead, giving them the confidence that – even without the services of the injured Shane Battier and Tracy McGrady – they were more than capable of hanging with the defending champs.

That confidence was evident to start the second half when Houston quickly stretched its lead to six following a three-point play from Yao. But around the mid-way point of the third quarter, the Rockets offense went into hibernation, going nearly four minutes without a field goal. Boston took advantage, reclaiming the lead and heading to the final frame up 74-71.

The last quarter witnessed a bold tactical decision from Adelman: He not only started the period with a backcourt of Brooks and Brent Barry, he let them finish it, too. That move, as it turned out, proved pivotal to the Rockets’ success in crunch time. It was Brooks who drained a three-pointer at the 4:32 mark to put Houston back in front 81-79, and the lightning-quick point guard helped his club surge ahead once again when he drove into the lane before kicking to a wide-open Wafer in the near corner. Wafer, who was told earlier in the day that his contract would be guaranteed for the season, rose up and calmly stroked the corner trey with 43.8 seconds left on the clock, giving the Rockets an 87-85 lead.

“Well I liked the group that was in there,” said Adelman. “They were playing hard and we had guys that could space the floor.  Those guys were working their tails off, so I was confident with that group. I was just hoping we could finish it.”

Boston went to their go-to guy Pierce the following possession, but his jumper over Wafer was off the mark, setting the stage for Yao to seal the deal with a short jump hook in the lane after a miss by Carl Landry. That bucket touched off a wild celebration on the Rockets bench, as two weeks’ worth of frustration seemed to seep into the Garden floor. The mood was no less festive in the postgame locker room, but Yao and his teammates were quick to point out that their huge win will over serve as a true launching point if they follow it up with similar efforts.

“We need to keep all that passion,” said Yao. “Tonight is obviously a big win for us. The Celtics we have a lot of respect for. They won the championship last year and are hard to beat. We did that as a team, and we just need to keep doing that in the next game.”

Artest agreed: “You can’t just win one game and say this is a change. You can look back and say this is where it started, but you can’t really predetermine that this is the game that did it, because we lose against teams that we’re better than.

“Sometimes we forget that hard work is more important than talent. Last year, Boston had hard work and they had talent, that’s why they ran through everybody. I think we’re as talented, but we need to work hard. Tonight we worked hard.”

QUOTES

Rick Adelman  

Re: Controlling the paint: “Yeah, we did.  We talked about playing their Big Three, and we wanted to make them take jump shots.  We didn’t want to have them get the ball where they could get lay-ups.  They really hurt us in Houston on the boards, and whenever they missed they got it back and they scored. They just kind of pushed us around, so we made a conscious effort of talking about that, so it’s something we had to do.”

Re: Defense: “Well we’ve talked a lot about how we’ve slipped so much defensively. When you’re not practicing everything else, there’s effort areas, and effort areas was: No. 1, on the boards, transition defense, and trying to keep your guy in front of you. 

You know the other thing is situations are going to happen but we were breaking down in all those areas, and the other thing I told them was I said you cannot go into this game and give up a basket and then drag your head down and start looking at your teammates.  You got to take responsibility on each guy and you’ve got to play, you’ve got to compete.  You can’t feel sorry for yourself, and that what we did last night (against Philadelphia).  When they got it going we stopped when we were ten down, and we can’t do that against this team, they are the world champs.”

 Re: Surprised about Von Wafer: “No, no, he’s going to make shots.  I didn’t care for the three he shot before that, that went left about four feet.  No, but if he gets a kick to him and he’s got his feet set, he’s going to make shots.  And the other thing we really like about him is that if they run at him, he has the ability to put it on the floor and get to the basket.  He’s got to learn to keep battling defensively.  Both him and Carl are two young guys who have got to figure out how they are going to defend.”

Re: Balance with Yao: “We made about two or three really nice plays – Aaron made them, actually – because they put Garnett on Yao and he was going to front him, and we weren’t going to just go down there and try to hammer it in, because he (Garnett) is just too quick. But with Garnett on Yao, and Perkins out there guarding Carl, we’ll go another direction. Garnett can’t cover all the places, and Aaron made some really good calls there and really good plays.

Ron Artest

“ Yao is unstoppable. Sometimes a center will have a good game against him, but realistically, Yao can not be stopped. Then, when you have shooters surrounding him, it’s hard. It’s hard to guard him. He shot right over the top. When he’s playing like that, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

 “The young fellas took us home. They were out there and they took us home today. They made a couple mistakes, we took them to the bench told them to not lose their poise, keep playing. Aaron realized that, Von realized it and made the big shot instead of worrying about the shot he shot over the rim.”

Yao Ming

“Some days we step forward, other days we step back. I think today, we stepped up. We need to continue doing so in the next game, and then the next game.”

“A lot of guys helped the team tonight. Chuck Hayes in the second quarter, got multiple stops on KG. In the first quarter, we had no answer for KG. Ron had missed several games, tonight he came in ready to play and gave us a lot of physical effort. We got in the paint, our defense played with effort, and Aaron Brooks in the fourth quarter. Everybody did a little bit to help control the game.”

“I just tried to play the game I usually play. Low post and swing the ball out. Try and make some shots, nothing different.”

Von Wafer

Re: His corner trey: “It felt good. Even the air ball felt good.

We just came together. We executed down the stretch. We’re still learning each other’s personalities. It’s still rough because we don’t have all our players together, but we’re getting there. We’re getting better.

It feels great. I think it’s going to help us. The locker room is more cheerful, guys are laughing. I like this better than losing.

(on his big day): It’s just a normal day at the office for me. It’s over now. I mean, I’ll remember it tonight and watch it on SportsCenter, but it will be over when that ball goes up there again. My mind is on Oklahoma City and that’s all I’m thinking about it.

 

Aaron Brooks

It was fun. I’m used to playing at the end of games from college, so it’s not really a big deal. I can be a point guard or two, it doesn’t really matter to me at all.

(on breaking out of his slump):I lost my confidence I think after every game. But I think once you get back on the floor, I don’t think about the last game. You have to go out there and hit shots. I’m not here to pass the ball. I’m going to have off-days, I’m going to have slumps and I realize that even the best have that. So I don’t care about it, I just have to come out and play the next game and hope it’s going to be the game I break out of it.

Luis Scola

I think the last two games, we played harder and we were trying, but we just couldn’t finish it. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think the message from this game is pretty much clear: If we play hard, sooner or later good things will happen. So the fact that we played hard and we won, gives us hope and a lot of reasons to keep working this way and we realize that this is the way to go. This is the way to play, this is the way to practice, and we’re going to go somewhere.

Head Coach Doc Rivers

Re why is the stretch from the holidays to the All-Star game so tough: “It’s to start to see where you’re going, you know what I mean?  I think when you start the season off, clearly you talk about goals and you get into them and you get out of the gates.  Then after the holiday season all of a sudden you’re looking at ‘Gee, we’ve got 50 more games before the All-Star break.’  But that’s not it, we’ve just got to play better. 

You know I told the guys, I said, ‘Listen guys, a lot of balls were bouncing around, going the other way.  Same thing that went your way during the 19 game stretch.’  I said, ‘We won a lot of games – not a lot – but we won some games we had no business winning.  We got the right bounce.  We made the right shot.  Right now we’re getting the same shot, they’re going in and out, they’re getting second shots off of long rebounds and making shots, they’re having role players step up and make threes. 

This is how it is.  This is just the NBA’s basketball gods sometimes.  You’ve just got to stay with each other and keep playing, and things will work out.’  I know they were talking a lot of defense.  I thought our defense was pretty good tonight.  Honestly.  I thought our offense, we got great shots.  They just didn’t fall.  11 points in the fourth quarter is not going to win a lot of games for you.  So you know, clearly at the end of games, last three or four minutes, you’ve got to play great defense and we didn’t.  They scored every time. 

Same thing happened to us last night. We had a lead, just like tonight, and the team came down and scored every time.  So at that point our defense has to be good.  But personally I think our defense for the first three and a half quarters has been very good over the last – last night, let’s throw that out please – but tonight I thought it was really good.  We just got to be more efficient offensively at the end as well. 

Now we got the shots we wanted, I mean I can’t – listen, Paul Pierce in the middle of the paint.  I think I’m taking all those shots and he missed a couple.  Kevin, I thought, rushed both of his and that’s unusual for Kevin.  But overall I thought we got the looks we wanted but that’s when the offense and the defense comes into play.  You’ve got to get stops.  And what happens if you don’t, then you put more pressure on your offense.’

Re: home court advantage not there: “No it wasn’t, and it’s our second loss at home.  It would’ve been nice if we won them all at home, we haven’t.  But I thought our spirit was right, I thought our effort was right, I just didn’t think we executed – we did execute, we just didn’t make shots and make plays and get stops at the end of games, tonight.”

Paul Pierce

Re: What’s your sense of things now, losing six of eight, what people are thinking… “Right now our defense is not getting the ball done. When you look at us, that’s one of the first things we talk about. That’s the type of team we are, and when we don’t defend it doesn’t allow us to get out and run the break. We’re not causing turnovers like we want to. You can defend us in the half court and get us into a slowdown game which we can play, but our goal is to go out there and shut things down. We are allowing too much dribble penetration. I told the guys we need to get our defensive swagger back. It’s been broken these last ten or twelve days. We know what we’re capable of; it’s just about going back to the basics and doing what we do.”

Re: Yao’s size and adjusting to him… “Well he’s a tough matchup for anybody, but they really did a good job getting him the ball with spacing the floor. Then when you’ve got Aaron Brooks playing tremendous the way he was shooting it, Von Wafer with the way he was shooting it. It’s tough when you’ve got the three point shooters and then you have Yao down there. When you dig, they kick it out and these guys are knocking down shots. We’ve just got to trust each other once again, play the way we know how to play, help when we are supposed to help, and get back to our man. That’s Celtics basketball and I think then things will take care of itself.”

Re: The confidence of the team… “I think the confidence is still there. It’s a long season and that’s what we try to tell each other. We bend but we don’t break, that’s what it’s all about. We preach the word Ubuntu, and what it means that through difficult times, we stay together. And we stay together, nobody’s pointing the finger. It’s a tough stretch but we know what we are capable of.”

Re: What to you expect from Cleveland on Friday… “Well obviously, this is team we put out of the playoffs. They are the best home team in all of basketball, so they have been looking forward to this. We’re going to get their best punch. We got a chance to play them in our home opener. When you play in a game like this, teams like us want to try to find the edge because we know somewhere down the road we’re going to see them in the playoffs. We have got to be ready for their best shot. The way they have been playing at home has been unbelievable, but the way we are playing, this is a great way to get back on track.”

Kevin Garnett

Re: Doc said the stretch from the Holiday to the All-Star Break is the toughest stretch of the season. Do you agree with him… “I think it’s more mental than anything. I think when he said that he meant mentally tough. We’ve had two real, real difficult months but we have weathered the storm, if you will. As of late, we have had some slippage in the defense and it goes to show you what practice time and the things you can clean up in practice, which we haven’t had a lot of. We are a very, very confident team. Like Paul said, we have to get our swagger back and some of the things we talk about are being defensively sound. This is the difficult part of the year. I feel we have the mindset to weather the storm.”

Re: Late in the game with Yao getting the rebound, he’s such a big guy, how tough is it to defend him… “Especially when there are scrambles and the balls are on the rim. Like Doc said, when we were winning, we had a lot of balls bounce our way. As of late, the basketball gods have been kind to others. But this is the game we love and it’s how it’s played sometimes. You can’t hang your hat on one play, and in times like that everybody is trying to do what they can do to get the ball and get the stop.”

Leon Powe

We need to go down there and play well and try to win, just get our mental game up and boost our confidence a bit.

Re to last season’s 2 out 3 (4) losing streak coming from Washington … does this remind you a little bit of that stretch last year in January?

It reminds me a little bit of that but you know our defense is breaking down a little too much and that’s something we stress it’s defense first and offense will come. But it’s been breaking down you know people getting in the lane, getting offensive rebounds. We gotta buckle down and make a commitment and hopefully we’ll pull through it.

Re to how the big men are trying to get the ball inside the paint: Yeah we’re trying to make an emphasis on that.you know sometimes Coach says we shoot too many jump shots, get jump shot happy and don’t look to the post that much You know we gotta, our team we can post up and when we do we’re very good. We just gotta go out there and try to play with a balance and if we get a ablanc of inside outside but inside first and then you knowe kick out and wide open jump, Coach don’t mind that.

Re to how tough do you think Yao was tonight: Oh man he was tough, real tough that’s a very skilled big man. Man he was real tough down low in the box. Just to try ignore him the ball and once he catch he got his little turanaround, he got a jump hook and he rebounds so it’s a very difficult match up for anybody.

Re to how much taller Yao is than him: I don’t know, he’s bigger than me, I know ya’ll know that. It might be a whole two heads but you know we gotta go out there and play defense the way we know how to play defense. We play help sometimes we play one on one but when we see a player who got it goin, like he had it goin a little bit, we just gotta try to turn the water off somehow.

Re to characterizing Yao’s strength: He’s pretty strong. Good balance, good base.

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