The Charlotte Bobcats let a close one slip away against the Houston Rockets on Friday the 13th. Like a true NBA competition, it all came down to crunch time.
Throughout all four quarters, this was a tight game with each team trading the lead and “mini-runs” to counter each other. The largest player on the court was also the the most dominant – Yao Ming. There was really no answer for Yao, who showed a full array of post moves, defense, and shooting range. The Bobcats focused most of their defense on quieting the rest of the Rockets and accepting their fate against Yao in the paint. Obviously facing a tough match, Emeka Okafor had no luck offensively early in the game and he was visibly tired from his work inside against the 7’6″ center. Larry Brown chose to plug Desagana Diop into the game to rest Okafor, and his fresh legs may have helped to restrain Yao briefly.
Elsewhere on the court, Boris Diaw was caught in early foul trouble and Vlade Radmanovic benefited from a bump in first half minutes. He really took advantage of the opportunity during the second quarter with a series of drives and great outside shooting. Rad Man really used his assignment on Brent Barry well. Barry is an easy cover for a player as big as Vlade and couldn’t catch up as the Serbian came off screens. While neither team was explosive on offense in the first half, Gerald Wallace found his usual numbers by playing like Gerald Wallace. More importantly, he kept Ron Artest from finding a rhythm in the first half.
The Rockets have a force of a trio in Yao Ming, Ron Artest, and Shane Battier. All can score in the paint, play strong defense, and hit mid-range shots. The Bobcats survived the first half with only Yao scoring well. The third quarter saw Charlotte struggling to knock down shots and Houston’s trio warming up. Both Raymond Felton and Raja Bell threw repeated bricks at the rim. Bell didn’t register a shot for the entire quarter. Boris Diaw couldn’t find consistency in his offense and after a quick foul, he had to play a bit softer than usual on Luis Scola. Scola took advantage of the match up and showed his inside game, taking Diaw into the paint at every chance.
Despite their struggles on offense, the Bobcats entered the fourth quarter down only by 5 points. The game became much more intense after a few minutes of the final period. The Bobcats pushed to close the gap to 3 pts (72-69) with a string of steals that lead to fast break buckets. Each team then tightened their defense and traded stops before Vlade Radmanovich was fouled shooting a 3 point attempt. He knocked down 2 of 3 and the Bobcats were only behind by 1 with seven minutes left in the game.
The Rockets regained the lead but after a big steal and save by Raja Bell on Houston’s side of the court, Bell tipped in a put back attempt by Okafor to give Charlotte a 1 point lead. By this point – it was crunch time.
Raymond Felton returned to replace DJ Augustin and Gerald Wallace rotated back in for Radmanovich. Augustin had searched for offense the entire game with little success shooting or creating assists. He frequently lost track of the perimeter shooters when driving into the lane. The inside presence of the Rockets didn’t allow DJ a single chance to use his reverse layup move, so he had to pass to the nearest teammate – thus, extinguishing the set play for that possession. In contrast, Felton attempted shots when the opportunity presented itself and passed based upon what he was reading on the court. The Bobcats guards came up big in the final stretch of the game. Although Raja Bell had shot a terrible 2 of 12 going into the 4th, he was determined to keep shooting. Luckily, he started hitting the baskets that the Cats needed.
It looked like a rough ending for Charlotte at 2:08 left in the fourth. But there was still more action to come. With the shot clock running down on the Rockets Yao Ming caught a pass at the top of the key and knocked down a three pointer (his first of the season) to push Houston’s lead to 6. Coach Brown called a time out and somehow things started to click. Raja Bell answered with a 3 and then Diaw put in a quick layup after a Felton steal to close the deficit to 1 point.
On the next possession, Ron Artest was determined to make a big play and held the ball longer than anyone had all game. Gerald Wallace matched him move for move and as Yao Ming attempted to set a screen for Artest he fouled Wallace turning possession over to the Bobcats. Less than a minute was left in the game and Charlotte need to score. Okafor missed a close attempt inside against Yao, but the ball bounced back to the direction of Raja Bell who shot it off the glass and through the rim. Cats took the lead 86 – 85, but that didn’t last long. Ron Artest shook Gerald Wallace off of him and hit an open shot from the top of the key to put the Rockets ahead by 1. Following a miss by Raja Bell (his first of the fourth quarter), the Bobcats had to play the foul game. After Aaron Brooks put in two free throws, a three pointer was Charlotte’s only hope of tying the game. Unfortunately, Ron Artest saw the play coming from a mile away and blocked Radmanovich’s attempt with 7 seconds left, snatched up the ball, and put it in on a fast break to seal the game.