This being my first live Rockets game, and only one of a handful I've been able to watch at all this year, I was definitely pumped up for tonights game (so much so, that I left my evening class early so I could make it for shoot-around). My future brother-in-law managed to secure us a pair of $125 seats 50-feet away from the court (free, of course) behind the backboard, so we were in the thick of things.
When the Rockets came on to the court a big cheer echoed throughout the Air Canada Centre for Yao Ming from the Far East, and then another distinct ovation for the Big Fella when the Rockets were introduced. However, as the game progressed, the Craptor, er Raptor fans booed the man everytime he touched the ball! Ahh the audacity ... but more on that later.
As soon as I got there I looked around for potential Toronto fans to annoy and heckle, and I found one in an amiable guy a couple of seats down from me in my row. Just before tip-off, when I yelled, "Lets go Rockets!", the guys like, "Who said that?" Of course, I stand up and acknowledge myself, and when he sees my Yao jersey, he's like, "Thats it, you and your Rockets are going down". Just bring it, I motion. As it turns out, we continued to bicker and taunt one another throughout the night whenever our team made a big play, definately making the experience all the more enjoyable. Of course, judging by the Rockets play in the 1st half, I was mainly on the receiving end of his and some of his comrades' taunts.
As for the Rockets play itself; I can definately see why they've been slumping so horribly of late. Their defensive zone coverage was lackadaisical, and their shot selection was carelessly chaotic at times. Throughout most of the game, the Dinos too easily made their way into the key and dished off to the open man in the wing for the easy lay up or dunk. A.D and the JunkYard Dawg had numerous such easy baskets, with the Rockets big men - Eddie Griffin in particular I noticed - getting victimized. It didn't help of course that the Raptors were hot from outside, especially Vince, which enabled them to spread the floor and give Rudy T's zone problems.
I was clearly impressed by Yao tonight, though. He had some easy misses early on and couldn't get in to the flow much due to some strong defense by Davis. But he didn't let up and had the presence of mind to be persistent and aggressive. Despite getting in to foul trouble, he got hot when it counted in the 4th, scoring I believe 13 of his 21 points in the final frame, and was robbed of his only block when his clean swat of an Antonio Davis lay up attempt was called a foul. I admit it looked like a big foul at first glance, but even the fair-minded (in-the-closet) Raptor fan sitting in front of me agreed that was a horrible call upon the replay.
On top of his early shooting woes and foul trouble, Yao was bombarded with boos from the hostile ACC crowd as the game went on. I expected to hear a extraordinarily warm reception for the Big Fella (as I did before the game got underway) because of Toronto's extremely large Asian community, but everyone time he touched the ball, especially in the 2nd half, boos began to rain down on Yao. Heck even the Chinese couple next to me raised their hands in the affirmative when I asked "Where are all the Yao haters now?" after our 7-5 centre hit two clutch free throws to put us up 4 in the dying moments. They said, and I'm not paraphrasing here, that 'we hate him'. I mean, as I vented to the guy sitting in front of me, the poor guy has only been in this land for a few months, has faced tremendous adversity, survived and thrived in it, and retained an unbelievable sense of humility the whole time?! What more could you ask of him? I guess they're just mad that hes not a Raptor. Can't blame them there.
While the first three quarters were dominated by sloppy play on both sides, the 4th quarter saw action pick up. It was very frustrating to see Houston come back to tie the game, then become complacent again and allow the Raps to build a 6-7 point lead. This became a continuous cycle for the first 40 minutes of the game it seemed, until finally Stevie and the boys mounted a charge to make the game very interesting - and gut wrenching - until the end. Maurice Taylor's strong post play, Yao's clutch shots and free throws, and some timely plays by Steve Francis and James Posey sealed the game in our favor. Got to especially love Taylor's presence in the middle - it gives us an interesting combination with Yao in the high post and Mo in the low post. Can't forget Moochie Norris and the energy he brought off the bench, although it didn't really show in the statsheet. I kept yelling out "Moooooochie" randomly through the evening, even when he was on the bench and it had nothing to the with the play, understandably drawing weird looks from the Raptor fans.
In the end, it was a great finish and as the Rockets became stronger and stronger in the 4th, my Raptor counterpart a couple of seats down became quieter and quieter (although he did shake my hand at the end to acknowledge a good battle). As we headed for the exits, I had the sensation to start chanting "Lets go Rockets" and gloat a little (hey, the anti-yaoism kind of teed me off), but then my sympathatic side came out and I realized these Raptor fans had been through enough this year. That, and I realized I was outnumbered by about 20,000-to-one. I did however spot a few fellow Rockets fans and exchanged high-fives, but we kept even those congratulatory sessions short and mellow for fear of our safety (just kidding, Toronto fans are about as dangerous as Karl Malone is gentlemanly).
All in all, it was a very entertaining game (for me at least, I realize there was a lot of bad basketball played), and probably the most fun I've had at a basketball in a very long time. Most importantly, of course, the Rocks came out on top. Can't wait to do it again.