|Rockets at a crossroads after loss to Utah|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 06 May 2007 12:31|
Across the court, Clyde Drexler did color commentary for local television.
In between the two team icons from their past, the current Rockets fizzled in the playoffs again and the franchise reached another crossroads.
Houston lost to the Jazz 103-99 Saturday night and has now dropped six consecutive series since Olajuwon and Drexler's last postseason run, in 1997.
This one stings more than any of them, because this year it wasn't supposed to happen.
The Rockets went 52-30, and would've been even better if Yao Ming hadn't missed 32 games with a broken right leg. Tracy McGrady kept Houston afloat during Yao's absence, averaging 28 points and leading Houston to a 20-12 record.
McGrady may have played the best all-around season of his 10-year career, averaging 25 points, five rebounds and a career-high 6.5 assists.
But the seven-time All-Star dropped to 0-6 in playoff series despite scoring 29 points, dishing out 13 assists and grabbing five rebounds in Game 7.
The result will rekindle the doubts about whether McGrady and Yao will ever be able to carry this team - or any team - when it matters most.
``Maybe I could've done more,'' McGrady said. ``It didn't happen. I tried. I tried.''
Yao, a five-time All-Star selection, deserves as much blame as McGrady. He averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds in the series, but also committed 29 turnovers in the last five games. Utah won four of them.
``Whatever we hear, if it hurts, it hurts,'' Yao said of the scrutiny he and McGrady will face. ``There's no shortcut. You have to put your passion into the summer workouts and practice for next season. The only way to go through this is, if you get the next chance, don't let it pass.''
While Yao and McGrady will certainly return next season, the loss will likely lead to changes. And speculation is already swirling around coach Jeff Van Gundy.
The 45-year-old coach has turned down at least two offers by the Rockets to extend his contract beyond this season, but he denied a report in Sunday's New York Post that he was going to step down.
``All that stuff next year is for another time,'' he said after Game 7. ``Tonight is about obviously a hugely disappointing result.''
A Rockets spokesman said Sunday that Van Gundy ``strongly denies'' the report and wasn't aware where it came from.
The Rockets went 34-48 in 2005-06, then made some offseason moves that had even the ever-cynical Van Gundy feeling optimistic.
Houston picked up versatile forward Shane Battier in a trade with Memphis and also signed free agent Bonzi Wells.
Battier instantly became a Van Gundy favorite for his work ethic, grasp of the game and his willingness to guard every opponent's best scorer.
Wells didn't turn out so well. He was injury-prone from the start, predictably clashed with Van Gundy and was finally deactivated for the end of his unproductive season.
Other recent additions also blossomed.
Chuck Hayes, signed out of the NBA Development League in 2006, made up for lack of size with toughness that carried over from his days at Kentucky. The 6-foot-6 Hayes was the team's third-leading rebounder against Utah and took a late charge to clinch the Rockets' victory in Game 5.
Second-year guard Luther Head also contributed, hitting several clutch shots and leading the team in 3-point accuracy during the regular season (44 percent).
The imminent decisions will probably start with point guard Rafer Alston, who was outplayed in the series by Utah's Deron Williams. Alston shot 34 percent from the field in the playoffs and had 11 points on 3-for-11 shooting in Game 7.
Juwan Howard just finished his 13th season and has one year left on his contract. He had productive stretches off the bench this season, but a better complement to Yao and McGrady would be a more athletic, physical inside presence.
The Rockets might also be looking for a new backup to Yao because Dikembe Mutombo is pondering retirement again.
The 40-year-old Mutombo was surprisingly durable and effective after Yao's injury in December, averaging almost 30 minutes in the 32 games. But he played only 40 total minutes in the playoffs and was frustrated after Game 7.
``I need to get away and think about it,'' said Mutombo, who is second on the NBA's career shot block list. ``I think, right now, I'm disappointed. I'm mad. I don't know how to respond.''
This summer, Mutombo will finally open the hospital in Africa that he's spent more than a decade trying to build.
``There are a lot of things I want to do in my life,'' he said. ``I have to make my decision on if I still want to play basketball.''
The Rockets have a team meeting scheduled for Monday.
``Our guys had a tremendous regular season,'' Van Gundy said. ``They're a great group. We didn't play as well as we would've hoped in the postseason.''