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Chron: JVG gets message across

Discussion in 'Houston Rockets: Game Action & Roster Moves' started by gucci888, Mar 14, 2004.

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  1. gucci888

    gucci888 Contributing Member

    May 20, 2002
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    Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

    Jeff Van Gundy sees progress and believes it's temporary. He sees disaster and swears it's permanent.

    Such is the nature of this hollow-eyed, obsessive NBA coach. He's pale from hours in the film room. His fingernails are chewed to nothing. And in a perverse way, he's completely happy.

    Even as he watches his Rockets close in on a playoff spot, as he watches the victories grow more impressive and the play more consistent, he obsesses over the little stuff he worries will kill them in the playoffs.

    "The hard part about being a coach is you're in your own forest," he said after Saturday's 88-80 victory over Memphis. "It's hard to see what the reality is."

    The reality is that the Rockets are very close to being very good.

    They may not have the depth of the Spurs or the championship experience of the Lakers, but for a team that started the season with so many questions about maturity and toughness, they seem capable of making the playoffs and then making them interesting.

    They've figured out their offense must begin with Yao Ming. They've figured out that everything can revolve around him, and because he sees the floor so well, there'll be enough opportunities for everyone else.

    There was plenty of everything Saturday night. One moment, there was Cuttino Mobley rolling off a screen and hitting a jumper. Later, there was Steve Francis driving the lane and flipping a basket between two defenders, then driving the lane again and flipping the ball to Jim Jackson for a wide-open 3-pointer.

    Even as the Rockets got more talented in recent years, some inside the NBA wondered about their leadership and their ability to persevere tough times.

    Jackson's arrival has given them a locker-room presence that may be worth more than even his scoring and defense. And with the acquisitions of veterans Clarence Weatherspoon and Mark Jackson, they suddenly have players who can make a difference as much in the locker room as on the floor.

    "Look," Memphis coach Hubie Brown said, "they've got the second-best big man in the league. Yao Ming is a shade below Shaq (O'Neal) right now. They've got Steve Francis, who is one of the best guards. So right there, you've got two of the best players in the league. That's a pretty good place to start. Because of the team defense they're playing, their personality has changed."

    Van Gundy would rather tell you about the terrific job Brown has done. He sees the Grizzles passing and pressuring, sharing the ball and the minutes, and he hopes his guys have been paying attention.

    "They come hard every night," Van Gundy said. "They pressure the ball. Attack on offense. Share the ball. Come at you with 10 guys."

    He knows Brown will soon have another coach-of-the-year trophy to go with the one he won during the Carter Administration. He appreciates general manager Jerry West for having the guts to hire someone now 70 years old and 17 years removed from his last coaching gig.

    He knows the Grizzlies are the NBA's feel-good story. A franchise that averaged 21 victories in their seven full seasons is headed to the playoffs with the NBA's third-youngest roster and oldest coach.

    The Grizzlies are special enough that there's hardly room to appreciate what Jerry Sloan has done in rebuilding Utah or what Gregg Popovich has done in keeping San Antonio competitive without David Robinson.

    Or for that matter, Van Gundy.

    He won't be fully appreciated unless his team gets deep into the playoffs. He did not resurrect the Rockets as much as he fine-tuned them. They won 43 times last season. They had Yao and Francis. They were not starting over.

    Now, they are different. Their defense is dramatically better, their offense smarter.

    Van Gundy is cautious about answering questions dealing with improvement or changes. He's that respectful of Rudy Tomjanovich.

    "He's a Houston icon and a surefire Hall of Fame coach," he said.

    Yet he did some things Tomjanovich simply couldn't have. He gave Kelvin Cato a clean slate and discovered there was a serviceable big man in there. He demanded more of Francis and Yao, got everyone to buy into the idea that playoff games are won by teams that grind it out and do things like rebound and play defense.

    "There's way more structure," Francis said. "Playoff basketball is seldom up and down the floor, and that's what he's preparing us for. You've got to be able to grind it out."

    Francis remains Topic A on the talk shows as callers debate whether he should be shifted to shooting guard.

    With each game the last few weeks, he's proving he can play in a disciplined system and that he can still put up All-Star numbers. There may yet be a happy ending.

    He's tired of answering questions about his relationship with Van Gundy, but the questions will continue because no Rocket has been forced to change his game more than Francis.

    From the white-water fast breaks on which he thrives, he's adjusting to an offense that prefers to slow the tempo and get Yao more shots. And he's doing it and saying all the right things along the way.

    "Hey, the game is still fast," he said. "Even if it looks like we're slowing it down, it still feels like it's 100 mph."

    There must have been times early in the season when Van Gundy wondered if he could get his players to buy into a system built around defense and rebounding and all the things they almost never show on SportsCenter.

    But he seemingly has done it. He has changed the Rockets even if he's not yet sure about it himself.

    He looked like a bit of a cartoon character Saturday morning as he padded around the team's practice facility fretting about a dozen different things.

    At least, he can poke fun at himself.

    "Yeah, we've made some progress," he said, making it sound as if he has just given up a dark family secret. "What I'm looking for is lasting progress. Ask me that question after the next loss, and I'll tell you we're never going to win another game."
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