Time for Stevie Franchise Experiment to Pay Off

Philip Maymin
Basketball News Services 

Steve Francis and Jeff Van Gundy have been at odds all season about how to best utilize Francis's quickness and ability to break down the opponent. Basically the debate comes down to this: Francis wants to do it and Van Gundy won't let him. During the regular season, when Van Gundy was looking to institute better defense, lower turnovers, and more team play, the coach did the right thing in enforcing his rules, sometimes by limiting Francis's playing time. But in the playoffs, all set offenses and defenses can be prepared for and broken down. But it's hard for any team to prepare for the creativity of a Stevie Franchise. Could the playoffs be the payoff from the Steve Francis investment that we've all been waiting for?

The Lakers will focus on Yao Ming, first and foremost. They will try to go at him on the offensive end to make him take some fouls. Yao has a weakness: even when he knows he is in foul trouble, and tries to just raise his arms without moving his body, he unfortunately tilts his arms forward a little. If he were to hold them straight up, he'd get a lot less fouls called against him. Instead, the offensive player merely jumps into his arms, gets the whistle, then tries to finish the shot for a three-point play. This is a mistake that Yao routinely makes, and is often whistled for. He sometimes forgets how many fouls he has, and can quickly pick up two against Shaq. Thinking from the team's point of view, he sometimes fouls Shaq when he is deep in the paint and Yao has no other help, merely to prevent a certain two points and make Shaq earn it at the line. That's another mistake, since having Yao in the game is far more valuable than a point or two.

Nevertheless, with all the attention on Yao, and with preparation for Houston's half court isolation offense that tries to feed the ball into Yao, there is less time and ability to prepare for Francis. The standard play for the Rockets is to have Yao set a high pick on the side for Francis, who will dribble through it. Yao then rolls to the post for good position, and Francis feeds him the ball. A swarming defense and a peek by the defender around Yao to stop Francis in his tracks is the typical offsetting defense. The Lakers will try to stop the roll from establishing good position for Yao, and Shaq will play Yao straight up. The Lakers will of course try to stop any obvious cuts by Francis off of poorly defended pick-and-rolls, but here's where his talents come in.

A lot of the things Francis does simply can't be drawn up on a whiteboard. If a dashed line is a pass, and a squiggle a dribble, how do you draw a double crossover, hesitation step, jump stop, and layup? Francis can break down people in isolation. This is the same skill that Kobe brings to the table, and which the Rockets will try to counter by occasionally double-teaming him late in the clock to prevent the shot, a strategy that the Kings used to great advantage a few days ago.

It will be interesting to see if Van Gundy appreciates this aspect of Steve's game now, after disparaging it all season. Will he bench the Franchise even if he makes the shots? Or will he realize that this X-factor is exactly what is needed for the playoffs to keep the opponents off balance?

It is Francis's first playoff series in his career. Could all of his talents have been waiting for this moment to prove their true worth?

The Rockets play their first playoff game in recent memory when they travel to LA to take on the Pacific Division champion Lakers tomorrow, Saturday, April 17. That game, the first playoff matchup between Yao and Shaq ever, will start at 9:30pm CDT and will be broadcast on ESPN. The last time the Rockets were in the playoffs was the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 season, when they were eliminated by the Lakers 3-1 in the first round. The only Rocket remaining from that era is Cuttino Mobley.

The Rockets ended the regular season ranked seventh in the Western Conference and fifth in the Midwest division with a 45-37 record.

Adrian Griffin(knee) has come off the injured list as the Rockets activated him so that he could be on the playoff roster.Steve Francis(elbow) andCuttino Mobley(shoulder) did not play the last two games but practiced with the team in a walkthrough yesterday and are expected both to participate in a full practice today and play tomorrow.


Jonathan Feigen ofThe Houston Chronicle write: Almost every night for five seasons, just before almost every game of his NBA career, Steve Francis touched his right fist into the outstretched fist of Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy in their own nightly Sistine Chapel moment. Matt Bullard has filled in for Murphy as Rockets television announcer the past few weeks, and the ritual has continued. But it has changed, too. Bullard's fist was different. Bullard's was adorned with the hard metal and precious stones of a championship ring that stabbed Francis' skin and stirred his imagination. Finally, on Monday in Seattle, Francis wore Bullard's ring like a child stepping into his father's hard shoes. And it felt right. "I loved it," Francis said. "It was great. I thought, `I have to have one.' "Finally, after five seasons with naked ring fingers, Francis and the Rockets can begin the pursuit. 

Fran Blinebury ofThe Houston Chronicle writes: They have been bruised and battered. They have squabbled and squandered what was supposed to have been a quite magical season. Yet for all of the aches and pains, controversies and distractions, the Los Angeles Lakers enter their first-round playoff matchup against the Rockets feeling as if they are still a force. Is it possible to limp and swagger at the same time?