Rockets revert to old ways in loss to Grizzlies
By JONATHAN FEIGEN
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
vs. Indiana, 7:30 p.m.
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MEMPHIS, TENN. - Just when it seemed safe to at least spread the fingers shading your eyes from a direct look at the Rockets' season, the December Rockets — the ones you don't discuss in mixed company — have returned.
Gone was the sharp, efficient offense. Gone was the scrambling defense. Gone was the winning streak, stopped at a season-best four games when the Grizzlies were too quick, too aggressive and too determined for the Rockets to match.
With the Rockets beginning a stretch of four games in five days, Memphis sent them back to the slow and sloppy first part of the season, rolling to a 99-80 win Monday night.
"We missed some shots, but I also think we didn't have that intensity on the offensive end that we had in the past," said Rockets forward Tracy McGrady. "And defensively, I don't know where we were at tonight. ... We just didn't have the intensity we've been having on the winning streak. Tonight, we took a couple steps backward."
That, rather than the streak, might prove to be the aberration. But the Rockets stepped back several weeks. There were slow offensively and slower defensively, while the Grizzlies began each quarter as if a starter's pistol had gone off.
The Grizzlies outscored the Rockets by a combined 25-0 to start the second, third and fourth quarters. They ended the game with a rub-it-in, alley-oop dunk with a tenth of a second remaining.
"Defensively, the first half was atrocious," Jon Barry said. "They were up in the 70s (in shooting percentage) for most of the first quarter, the mid 50s at the half, and we offered no resistance, didn't take them out of anything, didn't follow our schemes, didn't do anything defensively. When you make it that easy for a team and they're at home, suddenly they're the aggressors, and you don't get calls, and they control the whole game."
The Grizzlies made 50.7 percent of their shots, not needing to go inside until midway through the third quarter. After the Rockets started well and led by six early, they shot terribly, making just 38 percent. Only McGrady, who had 28, and David Wesley, who had seven of his 13 in the first 2 1/2 minutes, scored in double figures.
The calls they said they didn't get were, as always, called instead on Yao Ming, who had eight points with five rebounds before fouling out with 6:39 left.
"On those calls, sometimes people say basketball is a big guy's game," Yao said. "At that moment, I really wanted to be a small guy. ... I'll try any idea to defend, stay down, keep my hands up, this time I jump a little bit — they still call it. Don't tell me I need to jump higher. This is four or five (games) in a row (that have been) the same as today."
The Rockets started well enough, moving the ball and making shots, even grabbing rebounds off the Grizzlies' misses. But when Lorenzen Wright was called for a charge, running over Yao, Stromile Swift came in ... and he and the Grizzlies took off.
Swift, who led Memphis with 18, immediately took Yao to the hole, throwing down a two-handed slam that still had the arena buzzing when Shane Battier blocked Yao's next shot and Swift dropped in a jumper.
From that moment, the Grizzlies were quicker in every way. They moved the ball more quickly and were quicker to the ball and on the boards.
"That lit a fire under them right there," McGrady said. "He (Swift) came off (the bench) and made an outstanding play. From there, those guys were energized and took off."
... They had energy and we didn't."
It certainly looked familiar, just when it seemed safe to look.
Challenge this week
The Rockets' game in Memphis on Monday began a week that calls for four games in four cities over five nights. The schedule could strain the Rockets, but it will not change the way Jeff Van Gundy's rotation or game preparations are done.
"Everything is a challenge," he said. "But you play tonight without any worries about tomorrow and do the same thing tomorrow. We know we have been through the easiest part of our schedule. It just gets tougher.
"It's exciting to see how we hold up."
No time to learn
The Rockets' need for a third point guard became more pressing with the start of a stretch of seven games in 10 days. That schedule will also make it more difficult for Brandin Knight, who was signed on Sunday, to get acclimated and to show what he can do with no practice time.
"It's kind of difficult trying to pick up the intricacies of the offense," he said. "I got with one of the coaches today after shootaround. He simplified things and made it easier. I picked up a couple things. (I will) just take it day-by-day and try to pick up as much as I can.
"It is familiar, especially as far as concepts, particularly defensively, because a lot of things we went over in camp (with the Rockets in July) are the things being stressed now," Knight said. "It was definitely a help to have that little three-day minicamp.
Praise for Fratello
With Marv Albert in Memphis, Tenn., to do the TNT play-by-play of a matchup of his former broadcast partners, the Grizzlies' Mike Fratello and the Rockets' Jeff Van Gundy, Albert's game preparation could have been preparing one-liners about both.
"The thing about Marv that makes him so good," Van Gundy said, "is he'll have fun with it, but he won't go to the well too much. But it's a game, and we had some good laughs with it.
"With Mike, if you think about it, it took him six years to get back into the league. You have to give Jerry West a lot of credit. Not only does he pick players well, (but) if you look at his track record of coaches, it's been on par with his record on players.
"Nobody thought of Hubie Brown, and now Mike is doing well. I was really surprised it took so long for someone to recognize how good a coach Mike is."
The Grizzlies have turned around their season since changing coaches, replacing Hubie Brown with one of his protégés, Mike Fratello.
The biggest improvement has been defensively, where Grizzlies opponents are averaging 87 points on 43 percent shooting in their last 23 games after allowing 95.4 points on 44 percent shooting in the first 16 games.
"Their defensive numbers are steadily better -- points per game, field goal percentage defense," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "You also don't think about them being the best shot-blocking team in the league, which they are."
The coaching change (and injuries) also brought the end to Brown's five-man substitutions with minutes almost evenly distributed.
"I think every coach has to do what they believe in," Van Gundy said. "Hubie could sell it because he believed in it."
Press row view
Rookie Andre Emmett ended the game on an alley-oop dunk (the first basket of his career) off an assist from Dahntay Jones with a tenth of a second left, when custom dictates running out the clock. The Rockets stared angrily at the Grizzlies bench but could not make the anger last.
Mike Fratello gave his kids a talking to. And the Rockets knew they had embarrassed themselves more than Emmett had. As Jon Barry put it, "That's kind of bush. But we got our (butts) whipped."
Inside the numbers
Yao Ming has committed 16 fouls in the past three games and the same number in three games against Memphis this season. He has averaged eight points and 7.1 rebounds in the past three games. ... It was the second time this season Yao did not get to the free-throw line. ... The Rockets bench was outscored 44-18. ... The Rockets were led by five
players getting five rebounds; that's the lowest total for the team's leading rebounder this season.
Did you know?
Pau Gasol -- third in the NBA behind the Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett and the Kings' Peja Stojakovic in consecutive games scoring in double figures -- had nine until scoring inside with 2:47 left. Garnett has scored in double figures in 199 straight games, Stojakovic in 132 and Gasol in 103.
-- JONATHAN FEIGEN