Disclaimer: If you haven't read "Commentary from the Cheap Seats" before, this is not a real game recap. Those can be found elsewhere. This is part game story, part journal...this is what happens when I convince my wife that we should spend half of our spring break vacation darting in and out of major sporting events. This is written not from press row, but from whatever tickets the average fan on the average budget (me) manages to come up with. And so our story begins...
...with the two of us standing on the street outside the Toyota Center on Wednesday night, March 26, about an hour before gametime. I've already talked to one ticket broker that would be glad to part with nosebleed seats in a separate zip code from the actual court. That's not really what I had in mind when I decided to add a Rockets game to an already full itinerary (watch for later "Cheap Seats" articles about the Astros, the South Regional, and so on...)
Anyway, the next scalper I ran into was much more cooperative. We ended up getting seats in the lower bowl, right above the Rockets tunnel, for less than face value. That's more like it. Having only attended a handful of NBA games in my life, I was struck (as always) by how amazingly big the players are. And then there's Yao Ming. When Yao emerged from the tunnel (on crutches) and limped over to the Rockets bench, it wasn't too hard to keep track of his whereabouts. Seven-six doesn't hide well, I guess.
This game was a special one - the Rockets were celebrating Dikembe Mutombo Night. As my wife and I entered the arena, we received red foam fingers (in honor of Deke's famous finger waggle). Mutombo got a huge ovation when he was introduced, but didn't really play all that much, especially for a starter (17 total minutes). Of course, Houston was fresh off a 22-game winning streak, so I'm assuming the distribution of minutes was working well for all involved, thank you very much.
How can I say this kindly? The first half was not the most sparkling display of NBA basketball I've ever witnessed. The Rockets struggled to a 46-42 halftime lead over a 50-loss ballclub, and playing the role of chief struggler was: star Tracy McGrady. T-Mac had sprained his shoulder in the club's previous contest, and looked nothing like his All-Star self in the first three periods. Clanging jumpers, lackadaiscial defense, you name it. My younger brother's favorite player wasn't anything for me to write home about.
The halftime program will be one of my favorite memories from the evening. After a video montage honoring Mutombo's long and distinguished career (and his generous charity involvement in his native Africa), we heard short speeches from the Rockets owner and Commissioner David Stern. George H.W. Bush was also on hand in the front row for the occasion (he kept popping up on our trip, but more on that later). Finally, Deke got a chance to speak and thank the Houston fans for their support.
After all that emotion, the third quarter started with the Rockets going to Mutombo on a high-post isolation right away.
And he turned the ball over.
And then got dunked on.
And then almost got highlight-reel, Top-10, oh-my-goodness dunked on.
So much for the feel-good emotional story of the evening. Oh well.
The Rockets managed to stay a few points ahead of the Timberwolves all the way into the fourth quarter, when Tracy McGrady finally decided to make my ticket purchase worth its while. Three-pointer - bang. Pull-up jumper - swish. Cross-over, step back - bullseye. For as bad as McGrady was in the first three quarters, he was sensational in the fourth. In fact, with the game basically out of reach and about 90 seconds to play, T-Mac only needed only one more assist to get a triple-double.
And from the looks of things, he was the only person on the floor that knew this! Isolation...hesitation..."Who can I pass the ball to that will score and get me an assist?"...bullet pass to wide-open jumper...
And teammate with wide-open jumper pump-fakes and doesn't shoot. This script played out three or four times in succession...nobody knew they were supposed to fire a shot up! In my humble opinion, a short conversation on the floor ("Guys, I need an assist - shoot when I pass it to you") would have done the trick, but hey, it wasn't my triple-double. As luck would have it, McGrady even hit a teammate in the lane for a wide-open reverse layup...but it didn't fall.
Final stat line: 23 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists.
And as I said, he was awful for the first three quarters. That's how you tell the great players from the good ones. Anyway, if I had to pick a player of the game, I'm going with Luis Scola. 18 and 18 will win you a lot of basketball games.
Final score: Houston 97, Minnesota 86.
And that's how the game played out...from the cheap seats.