“That’s a secret,” Yao said with a smile.
If only the Rockets could spring a surprise like that.
The cold reality for Houston is that Yao is nowhere near ready to play and is still facing a long recovery from a broken left foot. His absence was glaring in Utah’s 93-82 victory in the series opener Saturday.
Without Yao, Carlos Boozer had 20 points and 16 rebounds and the Jazz scored 50 points in the paint. And without Yao anchoring the offense, the Rockets seemed out of sync and tentative. They shot 37 percent, including several misses from close range.
“You can’t avoid contact at the basket area, and we did that,” coach Rick Adelman said. “We were trying to get the shot up and avoid contact. I’m hoping we can get better shots, maybe the same shots, but not under the duress they were under.”
The scoring burden now falls on Tracy McGrady, and he couldn’t handle it Saturday. He scored 20 points, but none in the fourth quarter, when he was double-teamed. He finished 7-for-21 from the field and 1-of-5 from 3-point range.
With Utah’s defense geared toward stopping him, McGrady said that if his teammates keep misfiring, the Rockets have no chance to win on Monday, either.
“I can be as aggressive as I want to be,” McGrady said, “but if they double-team me, get the ball out of my hands and we’re not making shots, we’re in for a long night.”
Point guard Bobby Jackson added to the Rockets’ struggles, going 3-for-15 from the field. Jackson is filling in for Rafer Alston, who strained his right hamstring April 13. Alston will sit out Game 2, but said Sunday he was aiming to return for Game 3 in Utah on Thursday.
Utah’s main challenge now may be avoiding complacency. The Jazz have home-court advantage and went an NBA-best 37-4 at home this season. They won a playoff series opener on the road for the first time since 1996.
“We don’t want to just come here and be happy to win one game,” said Deron Williams, who had 20 points and 10 assists in Game 1. “We want to try to put a little more pressure on them and give ourselves a cushion.”
The Jazz controlled all but a 10-minute stretch spanning the second and third quarters when the Rockets outscored them 28-13 to take a 53-51 lead. Utah answered with a 17-7 burst and Houston never threatened again.
“We came right back at ‘em,” Boozer said. “We did a good job of finishing the third quarter strong. We started the fourth quarter strong and kept the lead.”
If the Jazz need to do one thing better on Monday night, Boozer points to offensive rebounds. The Rockets grabbed 18 and scored 23 second-chance points, while the Jazz had only 13 offensive boards and 14 second-chance points.
Outside of that, the Jazz don’t have much to improve. Utah shot 52 percent, held the Rockets to their worst shooting percentage at home since December and held McGrady without a field goal over the final 20 minutes.
Utah also got a valuable performance from Andrei Kirilenko. He scored 21 points as the Jazz improved to 17-6 this season when he scores at least 15.
“We definitely didn’t want him to get 20 points,” McGrady said. “He was knocking down 3s, taking it to the basket, posting up our guys. We’ve got to pay more attention to him. We did so much work about Williams and Boozer, we forgot about Kirilenko.”
McGrady, 0-for-6 in playoff series, called Monday’s game a “must-win,” even though the Rockets handed Utah one of its four home losses this season.
“There are a lot of things we can do within our offense where we can cut off the ball and get easy baskets,” McGrady said. “We showed that a couple of times. We just have to read those things. It’s just a matter of us reading the defense and understanding what they’re trying to do to us.
“It was good we saw the tape because we saw those openings. Now, I think we’ve got a better visual of what we can do.”