HOUSTON (AP)—The Houston Rockets were loose and laughing on Monday, wrapping up another practice with the same free throw contest they’ve played since training camp.
If the Rockets were stressed about facing elimination in Game 5 against Utah on Tuesday night, they were hiding it.
“Practice was competitive and guys were going after it,” forward Shane Battier said. “If you didn’t follow our team the whole year, you’d think this was the first week of the season and optimism is still high.”
Their outlook doesn’t change their dire situation.
Only eight teams in NBA history have rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. The Rockets did it in 1995 against Phoenix, but that was when they had Hakeem Olajuwon.
This Houston team lost All-Star center Yao Ming to a foot injury in late February and has struggled offensively in all four games against the Jazz.
Tracy McGrady has averaged 23 points in the series, but only three points in the fourth quarter, when Utah’s defense has keyed on stopping him. McGrady has lamented that no one is picking up the scoring slack and he’s got the statistics to back him up.
The Rockets are the lowest scoring team in the playoffs so far, averaging 85.5 points. Houston is also shooting 39.9 percent from the field and only Dallas—down 3-1 in its series with New Orleans—is shooting worse (39.4 percent).
Houston coach Rick Adelman said the Rockets—specifically McGrady—have strayed from his motion offense and made it easier for the Jazz to defend.
“We have to move a little bit more,” Adelman said. “Tracy is going to have do more where he’s moving. They’re just in a wrestling match out there, for the most part. That’s the way it’s being played and it’s not being called as much as we’d like. But we have to adjust to it and all that more determined to be aggressive and to move.”
But the Rockets have also shot poorly when no one is guarding them.
Houston is shooting a league-low 65.7 percent from the free-throw line in the playoffs, failing to exploit one of Utah’s weaknesses—the Jazz led the league in fouls per game during the regular season (24.02).
The Rockets shot 72.6 percent from the line during the regular season, but that number was buoyed by Yao’s 85 percent. Without Yao, Houston went 16-for-26 (61.5 percent) in Game 2 and lost by six and went 17-for-25 (68 percent) in Game 4 and lost by four.
“It’s been a big problem for us,” Battier said. “I don’t know if we can do anything different. It’s not like we can sit here and shoot 1,000 of them and improve your stroke. It is what it is at this point in the year. You’ve just got to step up with confidence and knock ‘em down.”
In Game 3, Houston went 16-for-22 from the line (73 percent), while the Jazz went 20-of-33 (61 percent). The Rockets won 94-92.
“Sometimes, it happens,” said Rockets forward Luis Scola, who’s 19-for-29 from the line in the series. “It happened to Utah in Game 3. It happens. Playoff series, there is so much stress, physically and mentally. When you go to the line, it’s hard sometimes to make them.”
As badly as they’ve shot, the Rockets had chances to win Games 2 and 4, but couldn’t finish.
In Game 2, the Rockets trailed 81-80 with 3:40 left, then missed their next five shots and lost 90-84. In Game 4, they were down 84-82 with seven seconds left, but couldn’t corral a rebound after Deron Williams missed a free throw. Mehmet Okur grabbed the loose ball and sank two free throws that put that game out of reach.
McGrady said Monday that he thought 7-foot-2 Dikembe Mutombo should’ve been in the game at that point to give Houston a better chance to rebound. Adelman considered it, but said he went with what he thought was his most athletic lineup.
“Everybody can have an opinion. But everybody better worry about themselves at this point and I don’t need Tracy or anybody to tell me what I could’ve done,” Adelman said. “It’s my responsibility. I make decisions and it comes back on me if it doesn’t work out.
“We were still two points down, either way, with seven seconds to go. The way we’re shooting it, that gives us about a 38 percent chance of scoring at the other end. I don’t know what would’ve been different,” he added.
While the Rockets are the only team to beat Utah twice in Salt Lake City this season, the Jazz have won their last four games at the Toyota Center, starting with a 103-99 victory in Game 7 of their first-round series last year. The Jazz know how the Rockets are feeling—Houston led last year’s series 3-2.
“We went all out and we ended up winning two games in a row to go the next round,” said Utah center Carlos Boozer. “We didn’t necessarily know it was going to happen. We just felt like we had no other choice but to give everything we had.
“They’ll feel that way. They may play their best game of the series. Just expect us to play our best game of the series, too.”