SALT LAKE CITY (AP)—One thing Derek Fisher has noticed during his first season with the Utah Jazz is that his young teammates don’t get rattled easily, maybe because just about everything is a new experience.
If naivety really is an advantage, the Jazz will take it when they face the Houston Rockets on Thursday night in Game 6 of the first-round playoff series.
“I think because of our youth, a lot of times we’re not as fazed by disappointing losses or bad stretches or things that happen,” Fisher said.
Utah’s poise is in for one of the biggest tests possible. If the Rockets win Thursday, the series and season are over for the youthful Jazz. If Utah wins, there will be a Game 7 on Saturday in Houston, which is a different kind of pressure altogether. But first, the Jazz have to get there.
Utah is 2-0 at home against the Rockets this series and had a chance Monday in Houston before the Rockets held on for a 96-92 win.
“If we were as soft at times as people kind of thought we were or as inexperienced or didn’t know what to do kind of thing, we might have gotten swept in this series after going down two games,” Fisher said after practice Wednesday. “I think we’ve shown that we have some toughness mentally to be able to respond to things.”
Utah coach Jerry Sloan said he’s still trying to come up with a way to keep Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming relatively in check and not have the rest of the Rockets from taking over the game. He was still taking suggestions at practice Wednesday.
McGrady has an advantage in either height or quickness against anybody the Jazz have and at 7-foot-6, Yao is 7 inches taller than Utah’s biggest players.
“I’m going to go out there and leave 3-point shooters and leave Yao Ming under the basket? Yao Ming can just walk into the lane and step right over the top of us,” Sloan said.
The home team hasn’t lost so far in the series. That trend continued Monday, when McGrady had 16 assists to go along with his 26 points. When McGrady wasn’t scoring, he was helping the other Rockets—and not just Yao—get baskets and the Jazz couldn’t stop the more complete Houston attack.
If McGrady can do it again on Thursday, he could be advancing to the second round for the first time in his career.
“This is the toughest game of the series, the closing-out game,” he said. “If it happens, I don’t know what to expect after that. It’s a game I’m going to put all my heart and soul into. Hopefully, my teammates do the same and we try to get this taken care of on their court.”
The Jazz went 31-10 at home during the regular season and won both meetings against the Rockets here, although one was in the final game when McGrady and Yao rested as the Rockets had already clinched the home-court advantage.
And it really has been an edge in the first five games. The arena has been full and loud during Utah’s first playoff appearance since 2003. Salt Lake City isn’t known as a hotbed for heckling, but the Jazz fans have managed to land a few comments that registered with the Rockets—other than coach Jeff Van Gundy, who heard it all from even his home fans as coach of the Knicks.
The Rockets were loose enough before the flight to Utah on Wednesday to have a little fun with what they had heard last week and expected to hear more of Thursday.
“Somebody wants to heckle me? Have at it. There’s a lot of material you can use,” Van Gundy said. “I look bad, I feel bad. Have your field day. You’re not going to surprise me. ‘Hey, Van Gundy, you’re ugly.’ Oh, that’s unusual.”
Yao said one fan had a sign written in Chinese and even used the correct words telling him not to complain.
“I’m not really sure how they know if I’m complaining or not. Whatever,” Yao said.