In case anyone had forgotten in the latest reincarnation of the Rockets, they can still unapologetically turn a game ugly.
They can shut down Shaquille O’Neal, control Le-Bron James and choke off anything resembling fast-break offense.
The Rockets don’t do this often anymore, but they made the old style work Wednesday night and then put together enough scoring down the stretch to frustrate the Cleveland Cavaliers 95-85, their sixth Toyota Center victory in James’ seven NBA seasons.
“Yeah, we did it like the Rockets of the last two years the way this game was played,” said Rockets center Chuck Hayes, who helped hold O’Neal to seven points. “Defensively, we were there. We really zoned in on what they wanted to do. We forced them to try shots we wanted them to take.”
The Cavaliers matched their fewest points of the season, making just 30 of 75 attempts. James had his customary 27 points, seven assists and six rebounds, but he made just eight of 21 shots and had five turnovers. He found himself surrounded when he ventured into the lane but without the wide-open teammates who have made the Cavs one of the NBA’s best 3-point shooting teams.
O’Neal made just two of eight shots, with just two points in the second half.
“Chuck Hayes is my personal hero,” Shane Battier said. “One day I want to grow up and play defense like Chuck Hayes. He’s awesome. He’s awesome. I’ve run out of words for how good he is.”
Yet for all the praise Battier had for Hayes, the Rockets’ defense was as much about a plan and the players’ ability to stick with it.
“As a team defense, we did well,” Hayes said. “We collapsed the paint. Our guys did multiple effort, collapse and help and then getting out to the shooters. So defensively, it was just a good, solid day.”
Yet for all the Rockets accomplished defensively, their offense disintegrated after a rapid start. The Rockets led by 14 points at the end of the first quarter and took the lead to 18 when Aaron Brooks opened the second quarter with a four-point play, hitting a 3-pointer through a Mo Williams foul.
Cashing in on technicals
By the third quarter, however, every basket had become a momentous occasion, and less than three minutes into the fourth quarter, James had helped the Cavaliers trim the margin to five points.
The Rockets called a time-out and immediately went to Trevor Ariza for a 17-footer for two of his 26 points. Carl Landry put in an offensive rebound and with six minutes remaining Ariza hit a 3 to push the lead back to double digits at 80-68.
“That’s when you need somebody to step up and make a shot,” Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. “It breaks their momentum. That’s when you need your better players to step up. I thought Trevor and Aaron did that.”
Brooks led the Rockets with 27 points, hitting a career-high 12 of 13 free throws, including five on Cavaliers technical fouls.
“I got a nice little rhythm at the free-throw line,” Brooks said. “Carl Landry was shooting 89 percent (from the line), yet he was third on our team to shoot free throws. After he missed his free throw today, I think I solidified myself as our technical shooter.”
Defense in the spotlight
Still, the win was not about shooting, from the line or anywhere else, as much as the way the Rockets defended a team that had been the league’s fourth-most accurate shooting team and second-most accurate 3-point shooting team.
“There were a lot of bodies devoted to Shaq and LeBron,” Battier said. “I think we played good help-side defense. No one guy is going to stop LeBron. No one guy is going to stop Shaq. I thought our big guys did a good job of forming a wall behind the guy guarding LeBron and just by being there, deterred some of the drives.
“Not too many people have been talking about our defense so far. It’s nice to point to this game as an example of if we really focus on defense, what we’re capable of doing.”