Gameday: Rockets vs. Suns
Yao update, Budinger attempting to bust out of shooting slump and winning the battle of the boards
HOUSTON - As frustrated as fans may be with the Rockets’ rocky start to the season, there isn’t anyone who takes these losses harder than do the players, coaches and team management. Everyone affiliated with the club came into the year with high expectations, so to say no one saw this 3-9 start coming would be the understatement of the century.
Of course, making matters even more mind-boggling has been the fact Houston has lost in the most painful way possible time after time, seeing fourth quarter leads disappear in every single defeat thus far, save one. And while the nightmare endings have brought on recurring feelings of déjà vu, so too have the principle causes of those calamities. With the Rockets, transition defense, defensive rebounding, untimely turnovers and too many fouls have ensnared them in a losing web again and again. It’s a cycle that must be broken and the sooner the better, starting with tonight’s match-up with the Phoenix Suns.
Obviously there is no bigger factor in tonight’s game than the presence of Steve Nash, who has missed Phoenix’s last two contests with a strained groin. He’s officially listed as questionable for tonight and is receiving treatment with the hopes that he’ll be able to play. But whether or not he does won’t be determined until game time.
Regardless of whether the Suns’ superstar gives it a go, The Rockets know they have to take care of business on their end if they’re to get back in the win column. To that end, tonight’s game should offer Houston an opportunity to regain ownership of the battle of the boards. The Suns come into the contest as the worst team in the NBA in terms of rebound rate and are especially woeful on the defensive glass. And though the Rockets rank in the league’s bottom-10 in that category themselves, it’s a weakness the Rockets simply must exploit, even if it means sacrificing a bit of their own transition game by having all 5 men on the floor crashing the boards at every opportunity.
“It’s a careful balance between getting out on the break and crashing all 5 guys,” admits Shane Battier. “Usually the teams that run have a pretty dominant rebounder inside that will help the wings to get out early, but we’re struggling on the defensive boards right now so we need to get everybody crashing the boards.
“You have to go get the ball. You can’t run if you don’t have the ball. It’s not impossible to run with 5 guys crashing – the wings have to work a little harder, you start deeper and you don’t get as good of a head start – but it can be done.”
Another key to the Rockets’ slow start: their oft-errant 3-point shooting. Houston is hitting just 33.5 percent of its shots from downtown, tied for 21 st in the league. Not having Aaron Brooks, last year’s league leader in 3-pointers made, certainly hurts, but the Rockets’ frequent misses also have a great deal to do with slumping shooters up and down the roster. Perhaps most surprising has been the start of sweet-shooting Chase Budinger, who’s followed up a rookie campaign which saw him hit 37 percent from beyond the arc by connecting on only 5 of his first 31 shots from distance for a meager 16.1 percent. The second-year swingman from Arizona is taking shots wherever he can find them these days – before practice, after practice, etc. – in an effort to bust out of the slump which has, not surprisingly, started to adversely effect his confidence.
“When you have slumps like this, you are kind of hesitant or you’re wishing the ball will go in instead of knowing it’s going in,” says Budinger. “Some of them I feel like they’re going in and just hitting every part of the rim and coming out. I just have to get that confidence back to where I just let it fly and know that it’s going in, instead of just wishing it will go in.”
Last Friday the Rockets received good news about Yao Ming’s latest injury when it was discovered that the area around the surgically-repaired part of the big man’s left foot was fine and that Yao is simply suffering from a deep bone bruise to his ankle. The 7-time All-Star center returned to practice Sunday and though he has not been cleared for on-court drills yet, he’s shooting free throws to keep his shooting touch and training on a gravity-controlled treadmill in an effort to maintain his conditioning. When the medical release was revealed last Friday, it said Yao was slated to be out at least two more weeks. How anxious is he to return? Yao says he’s not just counting down the days, but rather “counting the hours.