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Saturday April 3, 2010 0:59 AM

Rockets Reprise Role As Giant Killers

Total team effort lifts Houston to stunning 119-114 overtime win over Celtics

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

Boston - This is why you keep fighting until the bitter end.

This is why you persevere.

The Rockets had every excuse at the ready and every opportunity to simply lie down and play dead for the Boston Celtics last night: playoff chances next to nil; an injury list seemingly growing by the day; huge underdog status on the road facing a Boston club which had soundly beaten them two weeks before.

After watching the Celtics connect on 10 of their first 11 shots while building a double-digit lead six minutes into the game, the Rockets could have decided right then and there to place a big fat stamp on this one, mail in their performance and start making plans to attend the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Instead they fought.

And what’s more, they won – in about the most thrilling fashion imaginable, too, repeatedly rallying against the big, bad Celtics for a stunning 119-114 overtime victory; a win Rick Adelman labeled “probably our best of the year.” If you watched, you know why. If you didn’t, find somebody with a DVR or a hot tub time machine and arrange for a viewing. Immediately.

Because while you can examine the box score from this game all night and day and no doubt discover some fascinating figures, the most mind-blowing number of all is this one: combined salary of the players who dressed for the Rockets Friday night – a shade over $15.5 million; in other words, less than the annual salaries earned individually by each member of Boston’s Big Three featuring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

So many times in sports you hear about how every player on a team's roster contributed to the win. Occasionally it’s true but more often it simply smacks of breathless and overwrought hyperbole. Well file this one away in the former category. And given that the Rockets had only 9 players dressed and able to play Friday night, you better believe they needed every man to bring it.

Consider it brought.

Start with little-used Mike Harris and Hilton Armstrong, who came off the bench to give Houston valuable minutes. They were not only productive, they played with the sort of energy every underdog requires if it hopes to slay Goliath. And don't even begin to overlook Jordan Hill, the rookie who's transitioning from "bust" to "bust-out," by bringing his boundless energy on the way to collecting 9 points, 9 rebounds and 3 big blocked shots.

Then there were the men who played the starring roles: guys like Luis Scola who came through with just another ho-hum double-double which included 27 points, 11 rebounds and a handful of plays which could have landed him in jail given how badly he abused Kevin Garnett.

There was Kyle Lowry, coming off the bench early when it appeared his team was staring at a certain blowout, instead turning the tide with a 16-3 first quarter run which he capped with a pair of back-to-back treys.

And of course, there's Chase Budinger, the California cool rookie whose face should appear next to the word “unflappable” in the dictionary. So when he filled in for an ailing Trevor Ariza (flu-like symptoms) and knocked down six of his eight 3-pointers, including a “this needs to drop or we’re doomed” bomb from the corner in overtime, should we have really been surprised? In hindsight, probably not. In real time, however, the effect was more far more Hallelujah meets Whodathunkit?!?

But the fulcrum of the Rockets’ success, as he has been for much of the year, was Aaron Brooks, who bounced back from a miserable experience against Boston two weeks ago (he scored just 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting during a March 19 meeting with the Celtics) with a performance worthy of his finest vintage.

It’s next to impossible to state how important Brooks is to this Houston team which has so often found itself undermanned and overmatched of late. He is the Rockets’ bellwether and barometer; when he performs at a high level, his club typically follows suit.

It comes as no surprise then that he would play such a pivotal role in such a signature win. His 26-foot bomb to tie the game with 9 seconds left in regulation was the stuff of (Larry) legend and his final totals – 30 points, 9 assists and 3 steals – are the reason he has to sit right at the top of any list featuring the league's Most Improved Player candidates.

This season has thrust Brooks not just into the role of team closer but leader as well. It’s an awful lot to ask of a third-year pro entering his first season as a full-time starter and, to be sure, the ride has experienced its fair share of ups and downs. But to summon a game like this, when all the chips are down and the odds so firmly stacked against him and his team, says a great deal about how far he’s come – and where this club could be headed in the future.

“I’m extremely excited,” Brooks said, when asked about what next season holds for he and his teammates. “We have all these rookies: Jermaine Taylor, even though he still has lapses, is going to be an excellent player; Chase Budinger showed what he can do; Jordan Hill has shown so much, blocking shots. Add these guys with Yao and we’re going to be pretty good next year.”

Yes, the season to come could be special indeed. But that’s next year. There are still seven games remaining this season; seven more opportunities to grow, to learn and to fight.

If they didn’t fully realize the importance of doing so before, surely the Rockets know now. You fight for pride, yes. But you also fight because sometimes what you do on an April evening in Boston can become a building block for establishing the sort of resolve required to experience success in May and June as well.

QUOTES

Rick Adelman
“That was a heck of a win.  Probably our best of the year and maybe in a long time. When you have a group of guys go out there, it was all about them, as we kept talking about, it’s not about who your playing, it’s about yourselves.  They got us down a couple of times, and we cam back at them and made some big plays down the stretch.  I couldn’t be more proud of the guys who played.”
 
“You gotta play the game.  You never know what’s gonna happen.  A lot of games in my career where I’ve seen teams come, they just come out, when you least expect it, but you gotta believe and you go out and play the game, and these guys did that.  They got down, looked like they had us, and we came right back at ‘em quickly.  But down the stretch we got the rebounds we had to get, we made shots we had to make.  Just a terrific win.”

(on starting the game poorly defensively again): I don’t know why we start the game like that. They made, what, 9 of their first 10 shots again? I told them at the 6 minute mark, they have 22 points again! Then after that, I think they got (8) the rest of the quarter and we kind of settled down. Chase made some shots and I give him credit: he battled Pierce the whole game and played him well. It’s just something we have to learn, Young people have a hard time understanding that it’s got to be there all the time and we don’t do it all the time.
 
“He (Brooks) was doing a better job of mixing things up.  I thought in the 4th quarter he was just coming off the pick and rolls and they were putting two guys on him.  He was doing more change of pace coming off.  We talked about freeing him up and setting picks on his guy.  But I think he was just more aggressive. He had the pull-up shot, he got into the lane, he had a nice variety to his game.”

(pregame) You go through a season like this when you’ve lost somewhat of your identity as a team and we’ve changed our identity as a team this year. A lot of our young guys are offensive players and they have to learn what it’s like to be in a stance defensively and you can’t do it in a course of a season.

You can’t just say, ‘You’ve got to do this,’ it’s something they’ve got to learn through experience. We’ve lost some really good defensive players and it’s hard to replace that. But what we’re trying to do is see if they can go out there and play their guy a little bit better. If you play Ray Allen again, you’ve got to know what he’s going to do and at least try to contain him.

But we’ve also got to see them as a team defensively respond to what our game plan is. That’s been our biggest problem; all the holes and changes has caused us to make mistakes. We give up situations we shouldn’t give up because the game is fast and you don’t see that and when you have veterans they see that coming a lot easier. We haven’t been able to do that consistently.

I think you saw the last three or four games, we’ve been poor the first half and then we’ve got it going the second half, where at least we’re competing. But we have to find a way to do that start of the game and carry it through.

Aaron Brooks

When you look at this team next year what do you see? “I’m extremely excited. We have all these rookies: Jermaine Taylor, even though he still has lapses, is going to be an excellent player; Chase Budinger showed what he can do; Jordan Hill has shown so much, blocking shots. Add these guys with Yao and we’re going to be pretty good. It’s awesome to get this experience because it’s going to make us a lot deeper next year.

Luis Scola

I think it means all the things we’ve been saying over the last two weeks or so, it finally made sense. We finally realized how important it is to win these kind of games and how much good you’re going to get for it if we play like this through the end of the season. It’s great and we’ve got to keep going. We’ve got seven more and we have to keep playing the same way. You can miss a couple shots and lose but it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about playing the way you want to play because sooner or later you’re going to see a win.
 
Is the next step to continue with consistency. “It’s another great opportunity for us to put together two wins in a row and going to Memphis. Memphis is a team that is right there with us. I don’t know, maybe the same record or a little bit better or worse- I don’t remember, but we want to finish ahead of them. That is the only team that we can touch. We have to finish ahead of them and keep playing hard after those games we go home, so we have to keep playing hard.”
 
Do you have any additional goals insight for this team. “That’s the way that I do it. It works well for me, I always picture goals. I would think about assumption, you know getting ahead of their pace, I think it helps. It helps me.”
 
Kyle Lowry

We don’t want to lose. We don’t want to go below .500. We played awesome and everybody fought. Aaron played great and made a huge 3 and Chase played great and Luis – everybody just fought. We knew we were the underdog but we wanted to come out there and go play.

What changed after the first half. “Intensity, we knew we didn’t want to get embarrassed. We wanted to go and try to win a game. We knew we were going to have to pick it up defensively to have a chance to win the game.”
 
When you go into the game as big underdogs and without out Trevor Ariza, what is like for the team. “We missed Trevor tonight. When he is out there we still play the same way. We play hard like it’s our last game and we are playing to finish the season strong, not to just give up the season. We are playing to finish and improve to get better.”
 
What does a win like this mean. “This is big for the young guys coming in here. It feels good, when we just say “wow, we beat the Celtics in Boston.” It’s a feel-good win.”
 
Chase Budinger

You guys have had a few good couple of games, how much of it has just been the opportunity to play. “A lot of it is just getting the opportunity to play. Having so many guys out, especially in my position, have given me more minutes. More opportunity for me to be more aggressive.”
 
A lot of guys are injured, and when they come back it could help the team, do you agree. “Well, I mean this opportunity is great for guys like me, Jermaine, and Jordan. I mean we are rookies, playing as many minutes as we can right now is a great opportunity and will give us tons of experience going into next year.”
 
When you have a game like this, does it motivate you. “Yeah, I think throughout my whole career it’s going to motivate me, to prove people wrong.”

What does a win like this mean? “It just shows that we can still be competitive with what we have. We have a lot of our guys out and we played a Boston team that’s one of the best in the league and we competed. We’ve just got to do that every game for the next 7 games. I think this will just give us confidence in ourselves and our team knowing that we can play with anyone.
 
Boston Celtics
Head Coach Doc Rivers

Re would it be too simple to say the Celtics didn’t defend the three-point line: “Well you can also say the difference was we missed 13 free throws.  But I didn’t think we played very smart tonight.  There are so many little things that I could point out that I won’t, but throughout the game taking shots, when you should take the final shots at the end of quarters, and then it leads to them getting a three-point play, fouling in penalty when you’re up late in the game; no need to foul.  We played like a high school team at times, as far as the way our thought process was.  

I thought offensively obviously you can’t argue with 52% 114 points.  And 37 free throws.  You’re happy with all that.  But I just thought there were so many little things, you know, (Chase) Budinger’s three.  You know we were going back down, a couple of our players, instead of – You don’t go back down on defensive teams; you secure the basketball.  So, that was a disappointing loss.  I thought our starters who started the game had a great pace.  They were playing phenomenal and I thought our bench in the second quarter hurt us.  Hurt the rhythm, and then that allowed them to be in the game.  And I thought it was as simple as that in some ways.  Forget the – the second half was the second half. 

We should’ve put it away; we had chances, we had great shots.  We missed a ton of layups down the stretch, close shots.  But there were so many little plays to me.  No matter if you’re playing the Rockets, Cleveland – it didn’t matter who you were playing – that you had to make.  And that a veteran team should make.  And we didn’t make them.  So that was a disappointment.”
 
Re does he have a problem with giving up 101+ points in more than one game: “Well, we won’t win a lot.  So the answer would be yes.  We’re not going to win a lot if we’re giving up 101 a night.  You know, this is a little different  because it was an overtime game so there was extra points in it, but they were over that number before the overtime.”
 
Re is he concerned with how the Celtics are guarding the three-point shot: “Well I have been all year, and when we guard it well we’re a really good basketball team and when we don’t guard it well it hurts us.  The league has changed in that way.  There are so many teams that are relying on the three, and you have to guard the line.  You have to.  And Budinger with 24 points, you know, a lot of those should’ve been taken away.  It was almost like we didn’t believe he could make it.  So that was disappointing.”
 
Re how hard was it to play with out Ray Allen (fouled out) at the end: “Well not only that, just most of the game.  Ray was in foul trouble the entire game.  That hurt us down the stretch clearly, because it took away so many options and it took away space.  Michael Finley was phenomenal tonight.  It’s funny: he made so many heady – like, heady plays in the game.  Two that I can remember; both of them he passed up shots and threw the next pass, a bounce pass to the post.  And another bounce pass to the post where it led to just baskets.  He’s just such a heady player.  And we need more of that.”
 
Paul  Pierce
Re Rondo’s performance overshadowed by loss “That’s tough.  I thought a number of guys played well offensively but over the last couple of games we’ve been playing well offensively.  But at the end of the day it’s always gonna be about our defense and we did a good job of protecting the paint but we just didn’t get out to the perimeter.  We allowed too many three point shots, a lot of open looks from 15 feet and they knocked them down, you gotta give them a lot of credit.  They came in, played hard, three point game.  They step up and make a big three.  We didn’t make a lot of free throws tonight.  I mean we missed a lot of free throws tonight.  I in particular missed four free throws, that’s not like me.  You give a team confidence throughout the course of a game, especially a team that expects to lose, then they run with it.  The closer they are in the game, once it gets late in the game they got real confident and pulled them over the top.”
 
Re needing defensive adjustments “We have to address it.   I mean when you give up fifty percent, the last couple of games getting up over a hundred points.  I think we have to do a better job of perimeter players not allowing dribble penetration I think that’s the start of it.  It starts from the wind players.  From the point guard to not allow our bigs to help so much and it opens up so much of the game when we allow so much dribble penetration.  That’s what you saw tonight, a lot of dribble penetration from their guards.  Big men help and they kick out for their threes that they really hit.”
 
Kevin Garnett
 Re Allowing so many threes “I thought Aaron Brooks was over there aggressive, the way he was coming off of pick and rolls.  We was in a medium trap but he was shooting so they gave us a small sign that he was gonna be aggressive tonight.  We decided to trap off of him a little late but it didn’t matter.  I thought he and Scola had a nice rhythm.  The young kid Chase hit some real big threes and they played.  I think they had a rotation of I think nine, if not eight. But they came in and they just ran some of the same stuff.  But you could tell right away that Aaron Brooks was the difference.  We had him, from when we played them there down in Houston, we had him under control.  He was looking to make the pass and all of that stuff down there and tonight he was just overly aggressive.”
 
Re defense last few nights “It’s what is.  I think for the most part the effort is there, the assignments are there.  Guys just hitting shots like we knew Chase could hit shots but he made a big three tonight.  I thought Aaron Brooks three was a tough shot.  Green’s shot the other was another tough shot.  I guess teams are adapting and making plays and making adjustments toward the defense and they’re just making shots.  That’s all I can tell you.”
 
Re Ray fouling out “Anytime you miss Paul or Ray or anybody who is in our starting five it’s a big blow to us.  Obviously free throws was our big key tonight.  If we make or we only miss about four or five of them we’d win the game by a pretty decent margin. But every game it’s gonna be something.  But anytime you lose a big piece of your offense or anyone in your staring lineup it’s a big blow.  Not having ray in the game, not just for free throw purposes but for offensive attention, he draws a lot of attention on offense.  It gets a lot of guys easy shots and different looks and stuff and with him not in there was big.”
 
Re receiving fine “To be honest I didn’t even know I got fined til Rasheed told me a couple minutes before we hit the floor.  I could care less.”
 
Kendrick Perkins
Re: Rotation and games down the stretch “Once Doc finds who fits out there, I know Rondo played 48 minutes out there tonight, that’s a lot of minutes for him, we just have to find the right rotations and who Doc wants to play and we just all have to stick together and support each other.”
 
Re: Is Cleveland still a big game this Sunday? “Yeah it is. Every game out is a big game for us. I don’t think were trying not to win, I think the energy level is there its just little mistakes. Guys are making tough shots, every other possession there is one little break down that is costing us a bucket from a different guy every time, that adds up at the end of the game despite the free throws we missed.”
 
Re: Statistically good defense, but lack of big stops “Its hard to say, the shot Aaron Brooks hit, that’s a tough shot. The three before that he hit, he was at the hash mark right by Doc and that was a tough shot. A lot of shots you just have to tip your hat to, they had a lot of big plays down the stretch, every drive down the end, big plays.”

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