Rockets Don't Deserve a Playoff Berth

Philip Maymin
Basketball News Services 

The Rockets lost 99-97to the Phoenix Suns, the worst team in the Western conference, a team that can't seem to beat anybody in the leagueexceptthe Houston Rockets. There's no other way to put it: the Houston Rockets just don't deserve to go to the playoffs. They'll waste everybody's time there and just get eliminated in the first round. Give someone else a chance; even the Phoenix Suns have a chance to make some waves. They did, after all, nearly knock off the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in last year's first round. Does anyone really expect these Rockets to upset anybody except their coach?

Steve Francis seemed to do everything he could to lose this game. He caused turnover after turnover, whether it was throwing errant passes or not running to meet the ball on inbounds plays. He got bailed out once by Jim Jackson as Francis elevated for an open jumper, realized tonight was one of those nights when he couldn't hit the ocean from the beach (he finished 3-for-15 from the field), and dished it off to Jim Jackson in the corner for a wide open three. Jackson rescued Francis by sinking his sixth three of the night, matching his season record.

Jackson would go on to have a career night, connecting on seven three point attempts. In overtime with one minute remaining, Jackson repeated his performance at the end of regulation, sinking another three pointer, his seventh, to bring the Rockets to within one. That three point shot was surrounded on each side by two excellent penetrations by Cuttino Mobley, first a dunk, then an amazing but controlled layup to give the Rockets the lead with under 40 seconds to go. Unfortunately, a short and quick jump shot by Stoudemire and a high-arcing Joe Johnson jump shot with 1.4 seconds remaining in overtime gave the Suns the lead for good.

It may be unfair to lump all the turnovers on Francis. He was, after all, a consistent bundle of energy. He was the only one who looked like he had fresh legs at the end of the game. His physical conditioning is unquestioned, but mentally, he was fatigued. He got called for defensive fouls for not sliding his feet fast enough on Joe Johnson. He threw a pass into the rafters for Yao Ming but two Suns got their hands on it. He threw a bad cross court pass and jumped onto the scorer's table trying to rescue the eventual loose ball, to no avail. Maybe it's not his fault, but Francis was certainly involved in what seemed like every single Rocket turnover, and the Rockets sure had a lot of them. Houston committed 27 turnovers in the game, leading to at least 28 points for Phoenix.

Yao Ming represented himself as a solid, reliable, dependable big man. When he got the ball in the post, he has the finesse of Shaq: pivot, pivot, dunk. On defense, he got what looked to be every single defensive rebound. The Suns only had one shot every time down the court before Yao's strong, soft hands would pluck the ball out of thin air and his arms would wrap up the ball until Francis came to get it. Those defensive rebounds probably meant more to the team even than his scoring, even more than his clutch, high-arcing two-point shot off a high pick-and-pop with Francis, an 18-foot beauty of a shot that put the Rockets ahead by five with under a minute to go. By any measure, Yao was simply phenomenal. He is the kind of player you can and should and do want to build a team around. He finished the game with 29 points and 19 rebounds. No player on either team scored more or grabbed more boards.

He eventually got fatigued, and he did miss the potential game-tying jump shot at the end of overtime. He also made one key defensive mistake, which coincidentally came just after the beautiful shot at the end of the fourth quarter, and it happened as he missed a defensive rebound, a skill of his which I have just explained was amazing and phenomenal. Hmph. Amare Stoudemire poked the ball out of Yao's hands after a missed field goal attempt by Phoenix, and after Stoudemire collected the ball and his feet, he jumped into Yao, got the contact and the foul, and hit the hook layup for a potential three point play, giving Yao his fourth foul.

It happens. If it happens once, no problem. If it happens twice, you wonder. But if it happens repeatedly with your most expensive player who is also your point guard and your coach and leader on the floor, you have to think to yourself -- should I put Mark Jackson in? Fortunately for Francis, his defense was solid enough for Jeff Van Gundy to keep him in the game, but you have to wonder if the Rockets are no better off in their record come next year's All-Star game, perhaps Francis will be representing some other team in that event.

An overtime loss to the absolute worst team in the West and one of the worst in the league is not something to write home about. It's one of those games you wish your parents wouldn't see.

There is a lot to learn from this game for the Rockets. The regular season is almost over but Jeff Van Gundy's priority #1 -- minimizing turnovers -- is just not happening. It is still a ridiculous problem for the Rockets.

If Houston does make the playoffs, they will be summarily dismissed in the first round unless they can permanently fix their turnover problem. They need to be able to rely on each and every one of their players to play smart and play under control and play in the team mold if they want to have even a chance at not getting swept under the rug.

The Rockets have all week to wallow in self pity. On Friday, they start a three-game road trip, and their first visit will be to the slumping Golden State Warriors, a game which should have been Houston's big chance to extend their winning streak to seven. Instead, they will be looking to end their losing streak at one. The game starts Friday, March 19, at 9:30pm and will be broadcast locally on channel 51 and nationally on ESPN.

The following announcements are from nba.com/rockets.

Attention teachers in the Greater Houston area; the Houston Rockets invite your 1st and 2nd graders to participate in All-Star Readers, a new contest in which students must meet the following challenge: read four books at home, one book per week during the four-week contest period (March 24-April 21, 2004) with help from a parent or guardian. All students who meet the All-Star Readers challenge will be entered into a random drawing to win one of our great Grand Prizes. More details.

The Houston Rockets are challenging all blacktop ballaz ages 18 and up to put a 3-on-3 streetball team together and prove their skills at the BIG Blacktop Battle. There are no registration fees, so come battle it out for a chance to compete during halftime of a Rockets game. More details.

Southwest Airlines has partnered with the Houston Rockets to bring you the Southwest Airlines Beat the Rockets Experts Contest. Successfully predict the outcome of Rockets games and you and a friend will be on your way to any U.S. destination Southwest Airlines flies. Enter your predictionsnow!

The Houston Rockets are proud to be in the second season of broadcasting The Houston Rockets Big Hour, presented by State Farm. In partnership with Asian Southwest Media and the US International Center, this one-hour broadcast in Mandarin airs from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. Wednesdays on Houston's KCHN 1050 AM throughout the 2003-2004 season.

Mike Wilks(foot) is living the NBA dream on the injured list. Clarence Weatherspoon(calf) is questionable for tonight's game.


Megan Manfull ofThe Houston Chroniclewrites: Amare Stoudemire stood beside his locker still baffled and angry. He didn't understand what prompted Steve Francis to approach him in the third quarter of Monday's game and thrust his left forearm into Stoudemire's throat. Stoudemire, the second-year Suns forward, had just completed a dunk over Yao Ming that cut Phoenix's deficit to nine points. After dunking, Stoudemire turned toward the crowd and screamed. When he turned back toward the court, Francis nailed him in the throat.

Jonathan Feigen ofThe Houston Chronicle writes: Perhaps the Rockets thought they were past this, past the mistakes and the panic, past the foolish assumptions and past letting a going-nowhere team play harder and more confidently. But maybe deep inside the Rockets knew for all their signs of improvement, that part of them still remained. They survived nights like these against the Hawks and Bulls. But then they led the Phoenix Suns by 21 points Monday and seemed to forget all the damage they often do to themselves. This time, the Suns would not let them wriggle free. Shawn Marion drained the 3-pointer the Rockets gave him to force overtime, then Joe Johnson floated a rainbow over Yao Ming to lift the Suns to a 99-97 victory Monday night before 16,328 at Toyota Center. It ended the Rockets' five-game winning streak with a thud and the Suns' four-game losing streak with a swish. "I'm not trying to make a statement; I'm just saying it's inexcusable," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said.