Running with Zaza

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Artest Leads Rockets to Win over Hawks

What makes the NBA so fun to watch is that teams are playing at a high level every night. The intensity and physical play in the second half of this game almost reached a playoff type level. Blocked shots, dunks, steals, hustle plays, and hard fouls characterized this game. Just check out tonight’s highlight of the Rockets' Luis Scola diving into the bench for a loose ball!

Playing the second night of back to back games, the Rockets figured to start slowly against the Hawks. With two days of practice, the rested Hawks were coming off a tough road loss on Saturday to the Mavericks. This game could have been one where the Hawks jump ahead early, and a tired Rockets team without Tracy McGrady plays lackadaisically and gives the game to Atlanta. The exact opposite happened in tonight’s game. The Rockets stormed out to a 27-16 lead after the first quarter. After another terrible start, the Hawks fought back and led by 8 points with about six minutes to play, but Ron Artest and Yao Ming took over the game in the last five minutes to lead Houston to a huge 92-84 win.

Ron Artest is not one of these NBA players that put up huge statistical numbers. At this point in their careers, I actually like his game better than McGrady’s. In fact, some of the plays he makes and the intangibles he brings to the game are not measured by statistics. Basically, he took over this game in the last five minutes, but the best Artest moment happened in the 4th quarter after a Yao Ming basket and a Hawks’ timeout. As the Rockets players walked over to the bench, Artest grabbed the five guys on the court and quickly huddled them up. Who knows what he said, but his gesture said, “Let’s stick together as a team and win this game with toughness down the stretch.” Coaches always talk about the leadership of glue guys like Artest; and this quick huddle is a perfect example of what that term means.

Here is a quick synopsis of Artest’s 4th quarter. With the Hawks up two points, he buried a 3 point shot from the right wing in front of the Rockets’ bench. He beat his man off the dribble and dished to Yao for a lay up. Then, Artest took a long rebound and went coast-to-coast and finished with a sweet left hand lay up over Mike Bibby. After a Hawks’ timeout, Artest read the offensive set, left Joe Johnson, and doubled Al Horford in the corner. Horford was forced to call another time-out or commit a turnover. Then, with the Rockets pulling ahead, he partially blocked a jump shot from Joe Johnson. Finally, with the Hawks pressuring full court, he took the inbounds pass, cleared everyone out, and forced Joe Johnson to foul him as he brought the basketball up the court. Artest is a fundamentally sound player and his whole array of skills was on display in tonight’s game.

In simple terms, the Rockets are quicker and play better team defense. Scola’s energy permeates through the whole team. How many times did he show out hard on the Hawks’ high pick and roll play? Von Wafer, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, and Shane Battier play hard and know their roles. The Rockets out rebounded the Hawks 57 to 40. It is hard to remember the Hawks getting any 2nd chance points or loose balls. Acie Law, Mo Evans, and Flip Murray looked disinterested. The Hawks are not a young team trying to learn to win. Except for Horford and Law, these players are veterans. Dominique Wilkins, the Hawk’s color analyst, kept saying how impressive it was that the team was able to play hard and get back into the game. Much respect to Dominique, I could not disagree more. With higher expectations for this team, playing close on the road or playing hard and losing is not good enough any more.

Coach Woodson has some decisions to make. Defensive adjustments have to be made quicker. Yao was a force of nature in this game. The Hawks did not double immediately when he caught the ball in the post. It looked like they were waiting for Yao to dribble the basketball and then bring the double team. That is too late. Yao’s post moves are too polished. Zaza and the Boss (Horford) can not handle him one on one. He finished the game with 24 points and 19 rebounds. He also controlled the lane on the defensive end of the court. Also, Coach Woodson is going to have to decide on a late game rotation. Marvin Williams has disappeared with the return of Josh Smith. In the 4th quarter, Smith looked upset on the bench. Rafer Alston of the Rockets hit a huge 3 point shot in crunch time when Mike Bibby went under a ball screen. Who can get the job done at the end of the game? The Rockets had their answer tonight with Artest and Yao Ming.


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