The Houston Rockets advanced to the second round for the first time in Yao Ming's seven-year career on Thursday night with a 92-76 win at home over the Portland Trailblazers. And while Yao was his usual productive self with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks, it was Ron Artest shaking off his offensive doldrums to explode for 27 points that helped Houston to overcome their demons. And possibly give Tracy McGrady a few more.
While most of the country was watching arguably the greatest first-round game in NBA history, the Rockets went on a 13-2 run in the second quarter to take a 52-37 lead at halftime. From there, it was the same story for the Rockets. Defense. Defense. Defense.
The Rockets held what many consider the best offense in the NBA to 42% from the field and an Offensive Efficiency rating of 96.2. They did it with size from Yao, Carl Landry and Luis Scola, and speed from Kyle Lowry, Aaron Brooks and Von Wafer, who was supposed to miss the game tonight with back spasms.
But what may be the biggest asset for the Rockets going into their second-round matchup with the juggernaut that is the Los Angeles Lakers is their tandem of combo-forwards, Shane Battier and Ron Artest. As Battier blanketed Brandon Roy, Ron Artest took the opportunity provided by the rest of the defense trying to contain Houston's frontcourt to pick the Blazers apart. There had been talk that the best option would be to allow Artest to shoot his team out of it. And that's a fine strategy as long as Artest doesn't have the stroke going. On Thursday, Artest was able to pick his spots and make them pay.
This isn't to say the Rockets' offense was a juggernaut. But when your defense plays as well as they do, and Portland's plays as badly as theirs did, these things are going to happen. If you pick your poison, you have to be able to swallow it.
Portland did get 22 points from Brandon Roy and 26 from LaMarcus Aldridge, but the rest of the team was largely MIA -- and I don't mean the Heat. Star power and athleticism are a bad matchup in the playoffs for cohesion and communication, and Houston excels in both those areas.
Still, this was not meant to be a coronation year for the Blazers but a welcome back to relevance. Now they can spend another summer growing into themselves and tweaking their already loaded roster, armed with some experience and ready for the next step -- which hopefully is something resembling defense.
For Houston, it's finally getting past the ghost of the white elephant in the room. Validation for their team concept and the hard work they put in at both ends of the floor. The Lakers will be favored in their second round matchup, but the Lakers should know this: Do not arrive softly nor arrive unprepared. The Rockets are coming, and they are always ready for a fight.
Oh yeah, and Tracy McGrady's team advanced to the second round for the first time since he joined the roster with him injured. So there's that, which probably won't be discussed too much.