Now that was more like it.
Playing like they were disgusted with their season-opening performance, the Rockets opened the Toyota Center for the 2006-07 season with a bang as they simply steamrolled the defending Western Conference Champion Dallas Mavericks 107-76 Saturday night.
I was at the game and the place, led by the Red Rowdies, was rocking. The Rockets also made myself and a good friend, who has faced some serious health problems lately, the honorary captains of the game, so just before tipoff we got to go down to the floor and join the player-referee huddle at center court. We shook hands and talked with Dikembe Mutombo, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry. I'll post more about that later, but it was a tremendous thrill.
As for the game ... wow. The top three reasons the Rockets dominated it? Phenomenal defense, Yao Ming and Rafer Alston.
Yes, Rafer Alston.
Rafer played a virtually flawless game. He nailed two quick three-pointers right off the bat to help jumpstart the Rockets to a 12-0 lead. The final stat line: 14 points on 4-6 from long range, 12 assists, 8 boards, 4 steals and zero turnovers while helping keep Jason Terry in check on just 0-5 shooting for 1 point.
Simply put, this was the best I've ever seen Rafer play. After his absymal first half in Utah, he's put together 6 very good quarters shooting the ball from downtown. He's now 7-14 from three-point range on the season. I'll be honest -- I still have my doubts that his shooting will hold up, but based on the preseason and first two games, his sorely-needed shooting improvement looks to be for real.
Rafer playing out of his mind was a welcome sight, but the true force of the game was Yao Ming.
Yao simply couldn't miss. When he nailed an 18-foot near-baseline jumper as time expired in the first half, the crowd simply erupted. He had Erick Dampier and Desagana Diop all over him, and Yao was nailing 14-foot turnarounds at will. He finished with 36 on the night and hit 12-12 from the free throw line. When you consider that defensive specialists Dampier and Diop are only wearing Maverick uniforms to contain two guys in this league (Yao and Shaq), that can't be a comforting feeling for Dallas fans to watch the Houston big man destroy them in the paint.
Through 2 games, Yao is hitting nearly 72% from the floor and averaging 29 a night.
The team defense though was outstanding. The Rockets picked 13 steals to the Mavericks one and seemed to get their hands on every loose ball. It was the complete opposite of what we saw in Utah.
Luther Head scored 17 points -- 14 in the fourth when the game became a blowout -- and Kirk Snyder added 12. Bonzi Wells also saw his first action as a Rocket, playing 14 minutes and scoring 2 points on a steal and breakaway slam.
It wasn't all pie and ice cream though. The bad news? Tracy McGrady continues to struggle shooting the ball. He was 1-6 in the first half. He was also fouled on a three-point attempt and proceeded to go to the line and miss all three free throws. You could hear some clear boos in the place when he did that number. Something is definitely not right with T-Mac's stroke.
All in all though, a brilliant game. The Rockets will not waste any time in having to follow it up as they hit the road to face the Hornets Sunday.