HOUSTON (AP)—The Houston Rockets hung a banner during their last regular-season home game to honor retiring general manager Carroll Dawson.
They haven’t had much more to celebrate lately.
Houston hasn’t won a playoff series since 1997 and since winning back-to-back championships in 1994 and ’95, the Rockets have slipped to third-best in their own state, behind Dallas and San Antonio.
The Rockets open this year’s playoffs against Utah at the Toyota Center on Saturday. It’s no stretch to say this is a pivotal moment not only for the franchise, but also for seven-time All-Star Tracy McGrady, who’s winless in five career playoff series.
“It wouldn’t just mean a lot to me, it would mean a lot to this organization, knowing that we’re moving in the right direction,” McGrady said. “That’s what I’m all about, just trying to improve each year. We didn’t make the playoffs leat year, we’re back this year and expecting a lot. Hopefully, we can advance and we’ll see what happens.”
McGrady twice led the league in scoring when he played for Orlando, but he’s been surrounded by a better supporting cast this year than he’s ever had.
McGrady averaged a career-high 6.5 assists per game, most of them to Yao Ming, who blossomed into one of the league’s best centers. And when teams have opted to double-team him, not Yao, McGrady has gotten results passing to Rafer Alston, Luther Head and Shane Battier for 3-pointers or Chuck Hayes and Juwan Howard for easy baskets underneath.
“We have the pieces, the inside-out game to be a championship-caliber team,” McGrady said. “We have a big guy who’s dominant, we have shooters around us, we have a guy who can create for his teammates.
“It’s all going to boil down to how disciplined we can be, how focused and how bad we want it.”
Like the Rockets, the Jazz are trying to return to the elite level.
Utah hasn’t won a series since 2000 and is back in the playoffs for the first time since Karl Malone and John Stockton departed after the 2002-03 season.
“It’s good we got back with kind of a new breed,” said forward Matt Harpring.
Both teams are light on playoff experience: only five players have won a series.
Jazz guard Derek Fisher, who won three championships with the Lakers between 2000-02, said none of that will matter once the games begin.
“Where my experience will come in handy is after we play that first game and they really get to expeirence it and get a feel for it,” Fisher said. “Then it will be ‘OK, Fish. Man. I knew it. People said it was different. Now I see. I’ve experienced it now.”
The Jazz won three of four meetings from Houston during the regular season, but lost 12 of their last 20 games and relinquished home-court advantage in the series.
Harpring says the Jazz have shaken off their late-season slide.
“It’s tough, but we’re over it. We move on. We’re still the same team,” he said. “Now, our mentality is we’ve got to go to Houston and steal the game.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed for Utah is its rugged, bruising style. That’s Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy’s main concern.
“We haven’t found a way overall to deal with their physicality. We need to be able to deal with that with poise,” said Van Gundy, who hasn’t won a playoff series since 2000 with New York.
Utah coach Jerry Sloan, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to stop Yao. The 7-foot-6, 310-pounder had 35 points and 16 rebounds in the last meaningful game between the teams, in Houston on April 1.
The Jazz rallied from seven points down with three minutes left to beat the Rockets 86-83. But Sloan knows the Jazz can’t afford to let Yao have many more games like that.
“Trying to defend him is a monumental task,” Sloan said. “We need everybody to work hard now and to play hard. That’s all I’m asking. To play hard and hopefully play intelligently.”
Yao may have a defensive challenge of his own, guarding Mehmet Okur. The 6-11 Okur led the Jazz with 129 3-pointers and could lure Yao away from the basket unless Van Gundy uses another, shorter defender on him.
The teams have a long playoff history.
In 1997, when the Rockets had Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley, Malone and Stockton led the Jazz to a 4-2 win in the Western Conference finals. In 1998, Utah beat Houston 3-2 in the first round.
The Rockets beat Utah in 1994 (West Finals) and 1995 (first round) on their way to their only two championships.